Most complete horse racing center in U.S. in starting gate at Fair Hill


FAIR HILL -- In less than two weeks, the nation's most involved in thoroughbred racing will be located in Maryland.

By July 1, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, an organization representing 58 North American racetracks, and its subsidiary, the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau, is expected to be open for business at its new headquarters at the Fair Hill race course near Elkton.

When the facility opens, it will culminate a two-year effort by state and local racing officials, including the late Frank De Francis, not only to attract the national organization to Maryland, but to house it in a brand new $1.3 million building.

It is a continuing effort by the state, which owns the 5,600-acre Fair Hill complex, to develop the tract as a national equestrian center.

According to Chris Scherf, the TRA's executive vice president, the idea for the project was hatched when Atlantic City Race Course owner Robert Levy became president of the TRA in 1989.

Levy, who has owned such big-name horses as Housebuster and Bet Twice, has developed an extensive breeding farm called Muirfield East in the Chesapeake City area about 20 minutes from Fair Hill.

"We had been thinking about relocating to get away from the high rental costs at the TRA offices on Long Island, not far from Belmont Park," Scherf said. "Among the possibilities we were looking into was the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington."

But it took a phone call to Levy from De Francis, who was in the governor's office at the time, to initiate the idea of moving to Maryland.

It also helped that Charles Colgan, treasurer of the TRA, is executive vice president of the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, which had just made a similar move to Fair Hill.

But it took some innovative financing to make the deal work, said Mike Nelson, assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the use of the state's public lands.

The state retains the title to the land where the new TRA complex is built, but it has leased it to the Maryland Economic Development Corp., which in turn built the building. To recoup its construction costs, MEDCO leases the facility to the TRA for ++ 15 years. After that, the racing organization has an additional 60-year lease on the building rent-free. At the end of 75 years, ownership of the building reverts to the state or a new lease is negotiated.

"It's a good deal, and really helps to give us a handle on our costs," Scherf said. "It was a much more attractive offer than we had gotten from the Kentucky Horse Park, and the Fair Hill site has a lot of additional pluses. The location is terrific. We are within a three-hour drive of 12 of our 58-member tracks and centrally located from national horse organizations in Washington and New York."

The building comprises about 11,500 square feet. A central tower divides two wings. One wing houses the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau, which is called the "FBI of horse racing."

Information on all licensed personnel at the 58-member tracks will be stored in the building. The TRPB also is responsible for the identification tattoos of every thoroughbred that races and those records will also be housed at Fair Hill.

The TRPB will have about 25 employees at its national headquarters. The TRA, located in the other wing, has a smaller staff of about four employees. "But all the common rooms, such as meeting rooms, the lunch area, restrooms, things of that nature, are located in our wing," Scherf said.

The TRA is a trade organization that promotes racing, administers the year-end Eclipse Awards, operates Equi-base, which charts past performance information at the nation's tracks, and has also formed the 1995 Committee, which plans to have a unified national simulcasting system in operation within the next four years.

The new TRA building is shoehorned between the paddock of the Fair Hill steeplechase course and the old "Tea Barn," which is used for track functions. Some Fair Hill residents have expressed ambivalence about the new structure, saying it looks like an air control tower and does not blend in with the surrounding architecture.

But Scherf said every effort was made to make the building as unobtrusive as possible. Portions of the building are being faced with granite, extricated from quarries in the Delaware Valley area, and the roof is made of colored tile to resemble cedar shingles.

Nelson said other horse organizations, such as the U.S. Pony Clubs and the U.S. Combined Training Association, also have been approached about moving their headquarters to Fair Hill.

Although Nelson said he is pleased about the continuing development at the facility, there is no plan to turn Fair Hill into an equestrian Disneyland like the Kentucky Horse Park.

"We hired a consulting group to study that concept," Nelson said. "They definitely felt Fair Hill had the potential, but didn't think that type of facility would pay its own way."

In addition to three or four days of steeplechase racing, Fair Hill is also used for an international horse trial, the National Driving Championships, dog trials, the Scottish Games, country music festivals and the Cecil County Fair.

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