When Marylanders think horses, the first mental image is probably the recently run Preakness Stakes. However, the diversity of horse activity of all types in the state, from steeplechase racing to show jumping to pleasure riding, makes Maryland one of the foremost equine states in America, ranking at or near the top in horses per square mile.
And if the efforts of several horse-related organizations are successful, Maryland will have another elite showcase event to attract world-class horses and riders as well as droves of spectators to the state.
Fair Hill International -- which already operates the eponymous Three-Day Eventing competition within the spacious confines of Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County each October -- is making a bid to host a "four-star" competition beginning in fall 2019.
The Fair Hill International is currently rated a three-star competition, but to put into perspective what it means to a have a four-star event, consider this -- there are just six four-stars in the world. England has two and France, Germany, Australia and the United States (in Lexington, Ky.) each have one.
"This would give Maryland a marquee event in this area of equine competition that would approach the Preakness," said Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, a state agency that oversees non-racing equine activity. "Right now, only Kentucky has a Triple Crown thoroughbred race and a four-star Three-Day Eventing competition. If the Fair Hill International gets the four-star, Maryland is right there with Kentucky."
Three-Day Eventing is often described as a "triathlon" for horses and riders consisting of three disciplines: dressage, which demonstrates horse-and-rider nimbleness and teamwork; cross-country racing, a challenge of speed and power; and show jumping, a stage coming after the other two phases that tests a horse's resiliency and athleticism.
The international organization that oversees the sport is the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), and the United States Equestrian Federation (recently rebranded as US Equestrian) is the American governing body.
The American group sent out a call for bids last year to host a second domestic four-star Three-Day Eventing competition. Five sites submitted bids and now it's down to two: Fair Hill International and Great Meadow in The Plains, Va.
A decision is expected later in June or in July.
Maryland's effort has been spearheaded by a number of parties including Fair Hill International; the Fair Hill Foundation, which promotes all the activities at the 5,656-acre state area; the Maryland Horse Industry Board; and Maryland Sports, a state agency tasked with bringing sports activities and events to Maryland.
"It's fantastic the way all these groups have come together," said Carla Geiersbach, executive director of Fair Hill International. Of particular import has been the experience and expertise that Maryland Sport and the Maryland Horse Industry Board were able to contribute in compiling research and crafting the bid proposal. Maryland Sport has a track record of luring sports events of all types, from youth athletic championships to major college football games, to Maryland venues.
"It is very comforting to know that if we get the four-star, that I have someone in my corner who has put on Army-Navy games," Geiersbach said.
Of course, whenever there's an effort to attract a special event, money is an issue.
For starters, an upgrade at the Fair Hill state area is already in the works, as the International will be moved from its current location (even if it continues as a three-star competition) to the steeplechase racecourse where the Fair Hill Races are held on Memorial Day weekend.
The upgrade will cost $8 million to $10 million to irrigate the racecourse, reconfigure the turns and renovate the grandstand. The upgrade, which will be paid for by a 50-50 split of public and private money, also will benefit other horse groups that use the expansive Fair Hill grounds, such as the training center where thoroughbred flat racers are trained for both dirt and turf racing.
If Fair Hill International wins the bid for the four-star competition, another $3 million in improvements are planned. And annually, the so-called overlay for the four-star (temporary facilities to accommodate the influx of competitors and spectators) will be paid for privately through fundraising and sponsorships.
Moving the Fair Hill International, which has been held for nearly three decades, within the Fair Hill grounds is an imperative, said Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports.
"As it stands now, every year when the Fair Hill International is run, they have to erect a small city," Hasseltine said. "There's no access to electricity and water and certainly no internet connectivity for live-streaming. The steeplechase course has a lot of that infrastructure already in place."
Getting the four-star would have benefits beyond simply prestige.
The three-star Fair Hill International attracts about 15,000 spectators throughout four days. Using the four-star Rolex Kentucky Three-Day in Lexington as a projection model, the attendance at Fair Hill could increase to as many as 80,000 spectators over time with an economic impact of $20 to $30 million to Cecil County as well as nearby Delaware.
As the decision from the U.S. governing body looms, backers of Fair Hill International's efforts have been drumming up enthusiasm.
Nina Gregory, executive director of the Fair Hill Foundation, has been busy building consensus support among all the horse constituencies that use the Fair Hill state area because the money spent would benefit many of them, plus having the four-star event would raise overall awareness for the horse industry and equine culture in the state.
"They can see that it's to everyone's mutual benefit and the reception has been great," Gregory said.
And not to be overlooked is the disadvantage that would be posed to the Fair Hill International if the bid went to Virginia. That would put a four-star event in a neighboring state in opposition to Maryland's three-star competition.
However, advocates of the Fair Hill International are focusing on the positive.
"This is like you're already hosting a mid-major football bowl game and then you're offered the chance to host the Rose Bowl," Hasseltine said. "It's an elevation of exposure, an elevation of the number of spectators, and it brings in an international component. But beyond that, what this also does is it contributes to the evolution of the facility overall that makes it more responsive to all the horse activities in Fair Hill."