Fair Hill: From America’s Aintree to America’s Newmarket

Ben Nevis II and Charlie Fenwick leading the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1978 before going on to win for the second year in a row. (Photo by Douglas Lees)


Reprinted from the 2020 Bloodstock Notebook, published in the U.K. to coincide with the December Tattersall Sales

Tucked in the beautiful rolling hills of the northeast corner of Maryland, the foxhunting, steeplechasing and turf racing paradise William du Pont, Jr. created and called Fair Hill nearly a century ago is quietly being transformed into a 6,000-acre global mecca for horses, trainers, riders and fans.  

“The whole equestrian world is just so excited about this venue at Fair Hill,” Olympic  eventing champion Phillip Dutton said. “It has modern state-of-the-art facilities and footing – it’s just a perfect blend for horsemen.  It will arguably be one of the best venues in the whole entire world that people will flock to and want to be a part of.”

Charlie Fenwick on Ben Nevis II, winner of the 1980 Grand National at Aintree, at the third fence before winning the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1977. (Photo by Douglas Lees)

“The venue and facilities at Fair Hill are absolutely world class no matter what equestrian discipline is your interest,” Boyd Martin, 2019 Pan American Games Dual Team and Individual Gold Medalist, adds.  “It is superbly built and designed in beautiful Maryland and a premier destination for anyone that loves horse sports.” 

Fair Hill came to be in 1926 after Mr. du Pont moved his Foxcatcher Hounds from his family home in Virginia, Montpelier — now known as the Home of U.S. President James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Architect of the Bill of Rights.  To ensure the safety of his hounds and horses, he built bridges over the roads, tunnels under them and encircled the property with 17 miles of “super fence”, a chain link barrier that was set in three-foot concrete footers with a “T” section across the top.  Even the most aggressive hound (or fox) couldn’t dig under it or climb over it.   As an added benefit, the deer so distracting to hounds also found it too high to jump over to enter the property.  

Mrs. Ogden Phipps (left) accepting the Grand National trophy at Fair Hill in 1978 from Jean du Pont McConnell, daughter of William du Pont, Jr., for Straight and True’s win over Happy Intellectual. Ridden by Jerry Fishback (second from right) and trained by D. Michael Smithwick (second from left), Straight and True would go on to win the Eclipse Award. William Lickle, far right, looks on. (Photo by Douglas Lees)

Now owned by the State of Maryland, Fair Hill and its steeplechase and turf course has been evolving since its proud past beginning in 1928 when Maryland’s great ’chaser, Billy Barton, finished a gallant second in the Grand National at Aintree, England, and William du Pont, Jr. considered the question:  Coming so close, Billy showed that a horse bred, born, raised, and raced in the United States might have the right stuff to win at Aintree.  To produce that winner, what could America do better?

Mr. du Pont thought he could help, and his vision laid the groundwork for all that follows today.  He knew horses, he knew steeplechasing, he knew course design.  He owned a lot of land.  His ideas would take root at Fair Hill.  He began doing one of many things that he did so well:  reimagining the landscape.

At Fair Hill, Mr. du Pont used dirt from excavations to build up the area on which the grandstand would sit.  The original stand, named the Aintree Grandstand and seating more than 2,000 people, afforded a view of the entire course for the signature race:  the Foxcatcher National Cup.

From the start, the Foxcatcher National course would be branded as “the Aintree of America.”  And it looked the part.  On his own land, from his own mind, Mr. du Pont had created something audacious.

William du Pont, Jr. lived long enough to see Fair Hill continue as a touchstone for American ’chasers with Aintree ambitions.  Grand National winner Battleship paraded there in 1938.  In 1965, Jay Trump—the first American winner since Battleship, and the first ever with an American rider—did the same.

Historic timber race in front of the iconic Aintree stand.

Mr. du Pont died on the final day of 1965.  Traces of his intentions survived, even after the State of Maryland bought the property in 1975.  During the spring of 1976, Ben Nevis won the 3 1/2-mile Foxcatcher Hounds Timber Steeplechase.  In 1980, he became the first Fair Hill winner to also win the National at Aintree.  Several weeks later, Ben Nevis and his dauntless rider, Charlie Fenwick, galloped between races for a Fair Hill crowd.

Charlie Fenwick and Ben Nevis II lead the field over Becher’s Brook on their way to winning the 1980 Grand National at Aintree, England.

Since then, Fair Hill has added many milestones.  Its Thoroughbred racing contributions, alone, include the opening of the Fair Hill Training Center in 1982 under the guidance of founder, Dr. John R. S. Fisher.  The inaugural Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, in 1986, plus three other runnings brought national attention to the venue.  And within the last 15 years, it served as the home base of two Kentucky Derby winners, Barbaro and Animal Kingdom.  

All of this potential—and fulfillment—reaches back to its proud past beginning in 1934.  

Historic Fair Hill Races steeplechase

Fair Hill Foundation leaders today see an infinite future flying forward toward a facility that will rival England’s Newmarket.  With a $20 million public-private partnership transforming the property into a truly one-of-a-kind facility for multiple equestrian disciplines in a world-class equestrian center in the Mid-Atlantic, Fair Hill will be the only place in the world with a 350-acre Thoroughbred training center that has produced Breeder’s Cup, Kentucky Derby and multiple graded stakes winners, a one-mile irrigated turf course for flat and jump racing, an international five-star three day event venue, regulation arenas for show jumping and dressage, 6,000 acres of public riding trails and fields,  and a state-of-the-art equine therapy center.  

Fair Hill’s new uphill pull to the finish and infield show arenas.

The new Fair Hill will be able to host flat racing, jump racing, eventing, show jumping, dressage, and many other horse sports – all with international standards.  In October 2021, the world’s attention will be on Fair Hill.  Ian Stark, the world-renowned Scottish course designer, is leading the development of the world-class 5-Star Event course, scheduled to host its first Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)-sanctioned international 5-Star three-day event competition. This event will be only the second international 5-Star event in the United States; the Land Rover in Kentucky is the first.  

The first turn at today’s Fair Hill

The new realigned track features advanced irrigation, rail systems, new turf, livestream capacity, designated and protected crossing and access points, a mile distance with uphill pull on the home stretch, and wider, banked turns so footing will be maintained at the highest safety standards for horses.  Providing ample training opportunities and more racing days at Fair Hill are at the core of the vision.  

Fair Hill Foundation Proud Past*Infinite Future campaign chair, Jack S. Griswold, sums it up, ”Mr. du Pont’s vision is underpinning all the planning that has gone into this transformation.  In everything we do, we are committed to preserving his legacy while reimagining the landscape just as he did in 1928.  We are grateful to everyone who is joining us in taking Fair Hill into its infinite future.” 

Dorothy Ours is the author of Battleship and Man o’ War.  A consultant to the Fair Hill Foundation, Barbara Heck has wonderful memories of hunting with the Foxcatcher Hounds Master Jean du Pont McConnell, daughter of William du Pont, Jr., in the 1970s.