While flat racing struggles with fewer horses and declining revenues, the steeplechase circuit is enjoying steady progress.
Proof of that can be seen in a perusal of the entries for today's annual Fair Hill Races, which have drawn bulging fields for the eight-race program that will begin at 1 p.m. at the picturesque Cecil County layout.
With expected cooperation from the weather, an estimated 12,000 are expected to view a card headlined by the $30,000 Valentine Memorial for fillies and mares, a 2 1/4 -mile test over national fences.
"We've done a lot with conditioning the track, aerating, rolling and seeding," race director Frank Hopkins Jr. said. "We're trying to take it to another level."
Hopkins attributed the increase of interest in the jumping set to aggressive promotion. "The National Steeplechase Association is doing its part," he said. "I've been all over the circuit and the number of entries has been good all year. I think everybody understands that we're in the entertainment business. That plays a part."
Consistent rainfall has also contributed to the horsemen and women being eager to enter the meet that will close the spring schedule in Maryland. Without an irrigation system, Fair Hill depends on the weather to provide softer ground for the contestants.
"We're tickled with the entries," Hopkins said. "Mother Nature has helped a lot. The course is in great shape"
Nine will vie in the feature, making it the least-populated event of the day. With NSA placing new emphasis on female races several years ago, Fair Hill opted for the filly-mare headliner, with Tom Voss-trained Guelph expected to go off as the favorite.
A perennial contender for the training title, Voss is off to a solid start, sharing the training lead at 10 wins with fellow Monkton resident and defending champion Jack Fisher. Of Voss' 33 starters in sanctioned races this spring, 22 have finished in the top three, an astounding 67 percent.
Guelph was the filly and mare champion in 2005 as a 4-year-old but has never won the Valentine.
Of the eight horses who will test her, the F. Bruce Miller-trained entry of Jellyberry and Dynaskill seems most threatening.