ELKTON — Maryland's Fair Hill equestrian sports venue and a Virginia site are finalists to permanently host an annual event that could draw as many as 80,000 spectators to watch elite riders and their horses compete in jumping, cross country and dressage.
Fair Hill in Cecil County and Great Meadow, in Virginia's Piedmont countryside, emerged from a field of five bidders in January seeking to become just the second American site — and seventh in the world — to host an event known in horse circles as a "four-star."
"This is iconic," said Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, which seeks to draw large sporting events to the state. "This would put us in a very unique branding placement in the equestrian sporting world, where we would have a leg of the Triple Crown as well as a four-star."
Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, likened the competition to Virginia's and Maryland's efforts to win the proposed $2 billion FBI headquarters.
"Only it's a horse event," he said.
The economic impact on the state of the four-star, which spans four days, is estimated at $20 million to $30 million per year, Hasseltine said.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation, whose representatives visited Fair Hill last month, is expected to recommend one of the sites during its July board meeting. The final decision is to be announced later in the year by the Federation Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for the Olympic sport known as "eventing."
The Kentucky-based federation is "very confident" that whichever American venue it selects will exceed the international group's requirements, a spokesperson said.
There are just six four-star events in the world, only one of them in the United States: the Rolex Kentucky, held each spring in Lexington, Ky.
The event that Fair Hill and Great Meadow are vying for would be held first in the fall of 2019.
Fair Hill's nearly 6,000 acres of state-owned fields and woodlands are overseen by the Department of Natural Resources and host other equestrian events and activities, such as the Cecil County Fair and the Scottish Games. Racing, with parimutuel wagering, is held on the turf course over one day each Memorial Day weekend.
The nonprofit Fair Hill International hosts a three-star equestrian event at the site each October; the event is attended by about 15,000 people.
The four-star event is more challenging than the three-star, with higher fences for jumping and a more challenging cross-country course.
Eventing became an Olympic sport in 1912. Its roots lie in cavalry training, which required horsemen to master several different skills.
"It is a triathlon of sorts, a different phase on each day," said Carla Geirsbach, Fair Hill International's executive director.
In dressage, the horse performs precise movements in an enclosed parade area. Cross-country tests speed, endurance and jumping over varied terrain and obstacles. Jumping, held on the final day, tests focus and stamina.
Fair Hill is well known for its horse training center, directly across Route 273 from the turf course.
The center includes 18 training barns and 800 horses. Trainers based there include Graham Motion, whose Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, and whose Irish War Cry came in 10th in last weekend's muddy Derby despite being one of the favorites. Also there is Michael Matz, who trained 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who fractured an ankle in the Preakness and died months later.
Even if Fair Hill doesn't land the four-star, state officials — with help from Cecil County lawmakers and a local foundation — want to improve the equestrian venue to better position it to attract and retain activities and events. The proposed upgrades include a revamped turf course with irrigation and wider turns, and a new grandstand overlooking the track and the equestrian rings.
Portions of the current stands, which date to the 1930s, are rusted and there are cracks in the concrete.
"We need to bring this side of the street to the same level as that side of the street," said Peddicord, referring to the state-of-the-art training facilities.
"The improvements to the racetrack will allow more racing here. We're going to apply for more racing dates," Peddicord said.
The single race day this year is May 27.
The improvements are estimated to cost $8 million to $11 million and would be funded with a combination of public and private money.
Populous, the architectural firm that designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards, is a Fair Hill consultant. It has done renderings of a modern grandstand overlooking the turf track and equestrian rings. Some of the proposed new seating would be temporary.
State officials say landing the four-star would accelerate the rebound of Maryland's horse industry. A 2016 study by the Sage Policy Group concluded the industry hasn't recovered fully from years of decline but is generating more than $1 billion a year, 23 percent more than in 2010. The study did not include spending at racetracks.
Fair Hill's competition, Great Meadow, is a 500-acre field events center and steeplechase course in Virginia's wine and horse country, about 50 miles west of Washington.
Great Meadow officials stressed that it is in an area long known for equestrian activities and that their facility hosts more than 40 events a year, including Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase races, polo matches, show jumping classes, wine festivals and cultural fairs.
In the big picture, "it's really not about Maryland and Virginia," said Robert Banner Jr., president of the Great Meadow Foundation, which oversees the site. "We need to raise the bar. Every time [American riders] go to an international competition, we get spanked. We need to be a better international competitor."
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Germany, Great Britain and France won gold medals in equestrian events at the 2016 Olympics. The United States won three medals, none gold.
The formal name for a four-star is the "Concours Complet International ****" and it is often referred to in shorthand as a CCI****.
The Rolex event began in Kentucky in 1998. The competition last month featured riders from around the world and a $400,000 purse. Besides the luxury watch manufacturer, Land Rover North America was a prominent sponsor along with a long list of other corporations and organizations, including vodka and whiskey makers, and farm equipment companies.
Fans and participants at such events tend to be affluent and stay in the area for multiple days, making the competitions attractive economic propositions for the host.
"Once we secure it, it would be ours to host on an annual basis," Hasseltine said. "That would equate us with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, who has the Derby and the Rolex."