Fair Hill: the races are back

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Mention Fair Hill in Thoroughbred racing circles and you’ll get recognition. People know the place now, for its training center, equine therapy center and famous residents over the years (Animal Kingdom, Union Rags, Barbaro and all the rest).

But the races were here first. First run in 1934, the races somehow mix a country fair with Keeneland with a tractor pull. And they’re back again Saturday. The first of nine races start at 1 p.m. at the old course, built by William du Pont Jr. He owned the place, once nearly 8,000 acres of land in Maryland and Pennsylvania preserved for fox hunting, cattle raising, hay growing and nature. With England’s famed Aintree course at Liverpool in mind, du Pont built a race course. They say he let the turf mature seven years before allowing a horse to step on it.

Long straights, tight turns and jumping define the place though back in the day Fair Hill was more famous for its big brush course highlighted by a fence dubbed the Great Wall of China. The layout followed much of what is today’s timber course, leaving he oval for loops out in the country. That course and that fence are long gone, but you can find the remnants of the water jump and some other old reminders if you look closely.

Du Pont held the races for fun and never charged admission. People sat in wooden bleachers along the stretch or enjoyed the box seats in the Aintree or Fair Hill Stand. Any proceeds from the day went to the Union Hospital in nearby Elkton.

When du Pont died, his family sold the Maryland portion of his land – 5,656 acres – to the state in 1975 as a natural resources property. The race course and fair grounds (where the Cecil County Fair occurs each summer) came with it and annually host thousands. Over time, the entire property became an attraction with trails for hiking and biking, riding programs, fishing, hunting, group camping, a nature center plus many historic buildings and a covered bridge built in 1860. The movie “Beloved” was filmed at Fair Hill and it has hosted the races, the fair, Scottish Games, nature festivals, mountain bike races, trail runs, weddings, antique shows, car shows, astronomy demonstrations, circuses, sled-dog races and pretty much anything else you can think up.

The training center came to be in the mid-1980s, a private venture on public land and now thrives on 300 acres. Barns sell in the high six-figures and are now owned by some of the biggest names in racing. The facility has two racetracks, but one alluring trait will always be the access to the open fields and atmosphere that make up the entire property. Other equine highlights include the offices of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the National Steeplechase Association and Fasig-Tipton Midlantic.

And the races continue. Now just once a year, Fair Hill used to run several days each in the spring and fall. The first Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase happened at Fair Hill in 1986, complete with coverage by NBC and a spot in the full Championship Day broadcast.

Saturday will bring thousands to the intersection of Routes 273 and 213, just west of Newark, Del. and a little bit north of Elkton, Md. Union Hospital still benefits and you can still sit in the bleachers and bet your money.

Just the way du Pont wanted.