Scenes From Horse Heaven: Fair Hill Training Center

by | 07.09.2018 | 6:42pm
Turf training at Fair Hill

There are times when driving or walking through the Fair Hill campus it's possible to forget there are places in the world where horses and concrete ever mix. William du Pont, original owner of the 5,700 acres which were once Foxcatcher Farm, probably wanted it that way. Du Pont farmed parts of the property with cattle and hay and foxhunted on the rest, constructing picturesque bridges and tunnels to help people and horses pass safely through the undulating terrain.

These days, the bulk of that original parcel is a state park, with a nature center and miles of trails. In 1982, 350 acres of it became Fair Hill Training Center, thanks to the vision of Dr. John R.S. Fisher and care of early barn owners Mike and Sally Goswell, who now oversee the facility. Trainer and veterinarian Fisher negotiated a 98-year lease with the state of Maryland in a quest to create an environment where trainers were not pressured from racing secretaries to fill races.


The going was tough at first – the plan was for individual barns to be privately owned with monthly service fees paid to Fair Hill management for things like track and facility maintenance. Barns went up quickly, but when early backers wanted to sell, some wound up giving barns away and the organization struggled to keep enough horses in stalls. After some restructuring of the Fair Hill business model (and some attention through classic success stories Barbaro and Animal Kingdom), the Tapeta, turf, and dirt surfaces are as busy as ever.

A few scenes from late June mornings at the training center made clear the reasons it's thriving today.

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“My mother makes fun of me because I have to meet a human 20 times to remember them, but I know every single horse from here.”

McGee gives Main Sequence a scratch on her way between track and barn at Fair Hill

Cat McGee is leaning on the railing in the clocker's stand by Fair Hill's dirt and Tapeta surfaces, watching a string of workers donning Graham Motion's trademark blue and red colors. Motion has two barns here, and it seems everywhere you turn is another set, all with riders wearing the familiar helmet covers. McGee grew up on Long Island with limited exposure to horses until an ill-fated pony ride in which her horse bolted and 6-year-old McGee fell off. She was later found sitting on the ground, laughing and petting the horse's nose. Horses were her focus from then on, but she didn't have the warmest, fuzziest feelings about most of the racing industry at first.

 

“I had done the Kentucky Equine Management Internship, and that year we got free tickets to the Kentucky Derby. It just so happened to be Animal Kingdom's Derby,” she said. “I kind of had the stigma that most people have with horse racing that [the horses] are just trapped in their stalls. Then I read this article about Animal, that he was covered in mud the week before the Derby, out in the field for two hours and I was like, ‘Wow. I would love to learn how to do it that way.'”

McGee emailed Motion's office from her base in Illinois, where she was attending Purdue, and asked if there were any jobs available. She started as a hot walker and was promoted to groom – an overwhelming job she got the hang of with the help of her coworkers. Now, McGee manages many of them as a Motion's assistant, running one of his Fair Hill barns.

“We paid a lot of money for me to go to college,” she laughed. “My claim to fame is I was one physics class away from being a pre-veterinary student at Purdue. And of course I work in the only industry where, if you have a college education, you get made fun of for it. When I was learning how to clock, Graham's like, ‘Come on. College girl can't figure out how to use a stopwatch?' And I'm like, ‘I've cloned recombinant DNA! You don't even know what that is!'”

McGee is in her element watching 2-year-olds. This morning is about giving them each a trip over the Tapeta to get a better sense for which ones may prefer to run over turf or artificial. It'll take a few minutes for them to adjust, but if one of them starts skipping along with more bounce or speed than she normally sees on dirt, she knows they're onto something.

McGee swipes her phone and shows me a colored checkerboard spreadsheet telling her which horses and riders are doing what sort of work in which sets today. Just doing the Rubik's Cube of the set list takes a couple of hours.

One thing that probably isn't on the colored blocks but which she can recite by heart anyway are the pedigrees of each horse jogging by. This or that 2-year-old looks like his sire, while others take after the dam. McGee has been with Motion long enough now she's starting to see offspring of the first horses she worked with hit the track, which feels like a sort of coming full circle.

One of the airy barns at Fair Hill Training Center

Although McGee has been at Motion's Fair Hill base for four years now, she has no plans to hang out her own shingle.

“I love the idea of training, but right now I'm just sort of enjoying the idea of being an assistant. I have really wonderful horses and I have the resources to take care of them to the best of my ability,” she said. “Getting away from that and going on your own is a very different ball game. I can just say ‘Oh we'll send this one to the spa for the work' or ‘This one needs to get jogged up and go home.'”

 

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Turf training at Fair Hill takes place across Route 273, away from the main track and most of the property's 18 barns. The site is home to one day of racing each May – mostly steeplechase with a couple of unofficial ‘training' races on the flat. Although the metal grandstands and empty betting windows seem a bit spooky on a non-race day, longtime Fair Hill resident and owner of ST Publishing Joe Clancy said it's packed for the steeplechase cards. There's a state fair atmosphere as non-horsey Maryland residents come by for the spectacle and the fun of a day outdoors. The handle isn't much – lines at the windows are often long as newbies realize they can't place bets on their credit cards – but everyone seems to have a good time.

“I've been coming to Fair Hill since I was a child. Back then, it was just the races where my dad (Joe Sr.) had a runner as a trainer or an amateur jockey. I rode a few races there when I was in high school and college too, but it was always a highlight,” said Clancy. “He trained for Augustin Stable, who was an early investor in the place and they were just starting to break ground on some barns and the racetrack. It was basically piles of dirt. I ended up working there when it opened, for my dad, on weekends and on summer breaks. It wasn't the high-end place it is now – the pipes froze, the drains clogged, the track and horse paths were a mess but you could tell it was a great place for a horse and the perfect mix of farm life and racetrack life. To see it succeed now and become what it was destined to be is pretty cool though I wish I'd bought a barn when they were basically giving them away. Most importantly, I met my wife Sam there. She was working for another trainer in the same barn as my dad's horses.”

Clancy now lives near the park's edge and goes for runs through the trails with his Labrador Retriever, Katie.

“We see deer, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, birds of all kinds, the occasional horse (usually trail riders, but some racehorses too) so the place is as good for people as it is horses,” he said. “I know it well, but I still sometimes end up on trails I've either never seen or don't remember. In today's world, there are precious few places where you can be somewhere and not see or hear anything man made.”

An artist's rendering of the future grounds for Fair Hill International Three-Day Event

The rolling ground and miles of wooded trails made Fair Hill attractive to non-racing sports disciplines, too. A different section of the park already hosts a CCI two- and three-star competition for eventers in the fall, as well as combined driving, an endurance ride, and lower-level events. Trail riders can sign out a stall in one of the barns across the street from the training center and hit the miles of forested trails.

This explains why, during a drive between the turf training track and the main training center, two ponies with long manes, halters and trailing lead ropes come jogging boldly away from a group of otherwise-empty barns, looking delighted to be making a jailbreak. Not immediately seeing any humans behind them, three of us pile out of the car and fan out, ready to use our lifetimes of horse skills to secure the delighted-looking imps. Two people in riding gear soon appear behind them, looking sheepish. You turn your back for one second, and ponies will find mischief to make, we all agree.

Clancy is hopeful a seven-figure upgrade coming soon to the eventing facility could spill over onto the racecourse. He'd be happy to see the track host more race dates, more chances to get people close to horses.

Even if it doesn't happen, Fair Hill is doing its part to make racing more approachable to true horse people.

“A racehorse can get turned out in a round pen or a paddock, train on Tapeta, train on dirt, train on a turf course, gallop up a hill in the fields, simply go for a hack on the trails, and now they've added the therapy center with the scientific parts of the equation,” said Clancy.

A horse gets a check-up at the Therapy Center

(The Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center includes a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a vibration plate, Aquapacer, a solarium, and a cold salt water spa.)

“In the afternoon, there's no announcer, no hustle and bustle of a racetrack, no stress. I love driving through and seeing horses flaked out while sound asleep in round pens just a few yards from a horse path or the entrance road,” said Clancy. “Other horses walk to and from the track, tractors roll by, in the spring and fall school buses full of elementary students drive right by on the way to the nature center.

“Fair Hill doesn't necessarily make racehorses better, but the atmosphere can't hurt and it's got to make them happier, more content and ultimately horses are why we are in this sport so we should maximize ways to make their lives better.”

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