When Jeff Newman describes the significance of the Maryland 5 Star equestrian competition, the event’s president and CEO leans on his background directing tennis tournaments.
“It’s the equivalent of bringing a new Grand Slam to the sport,” Newman said Wednesday, a day before the inaugural Maryland 5 Star began at the Fair Hill Special Event Zone in Elkton. As a 5 Star, it holds the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s highest distinction, one of seven such events in the world and one of two in the United States.
Like the other, held in Kentucky, the Maryland 5 Star shares a state with one of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
“It is literally a fall Preakness,” said Ross Peddicord, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.
Unlike Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes, the Maryland 5 Star features no racing. Instead, it is a three-day eventing competition in which riders and their horses compete in dressage, cross-country and show jumping.
Four of the world’s top 10 riders will participate in the Maryland 5 Star, including world No. 1 Oliver Townend, who won a gold medal in team eventing at this summer’s Olympic Games. Zara Tindall, the granddaughter of England’s Queen Elizabeth II, also plans to ride during the weekend.
“I am sure the Queen, back in England, will be watching her granddaughter ride at Fair Hill in Cecil County, Maryland, and the type of publicity that that will generate is priceless,” Peddicord said. “And it’s not only the Queen of England, it’s worldwide, and all eyes in the horse world will be on Maryland once again, as they are in the Preakness.”
The Olympics are only at a 4 Star level, noted Terry Hasseltine, the executive director of Maryland Sports, which assists in bringing large sporting events to the state. That was the highest level of competition when the state first began its bid to host this event, with the Switzerland-based international federation updating its system during the process.
By hosting a 5 Star, officials hope its significance will bring the Maryland event to the level of Kentucky’s event, which draws about 80,000 annually with an economic impact of about $15 million, or even to that of the Preakness, which causes a financial groundswell of twice that, Peddicord said.
Given that it’s the Maryland 5 Star’s first year and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic — which canceled what was supposed to be the event’s opening in 2020 — continue to linger, the inaugural competition is expected to draw 20,000 to 30,000 people to Cecil County, said Steven Overbay, the county’s director of economic development.
“As we do this in coming years, we do anticipate that that same level of support [as Kentucky] will happen for this facility,” Overbay said. “This is a world-class facility, and I think it’s every bit on par with the other 5 Star locations across the globe. And I think that as more people recognize that and travel restrictions ease up that Fair Hill is going to become a must-see and must-attend event for spectators and the athletes alike.”
Hasseltine believes this year’s Maryland 5 Star already will have that effect. The facility, which last year received a $27 million upgrade funded by the state and private investors, is part of a nearly 6,000-acre area of woodlands and fields in northeast Maryland.
“You’re going to walk into a venue, and you’re going to feel like you’ve arrived somewhere special,” he said.
In addition to the competition, the Maryland 5 Star will feature arts and crafts for children, a dog day care area, and various dining options throughout the weekend, with a beer, wine and spirits showcase Saturday.
“We have something for everyone,” Newman said.
The same applies to the competition itself.
Newman compared dressage to “figure skating for horses,” with its focus on technical skills.
Hasseltine likened the event to Caves Valley’s BMW Championship, saying that instead of camping out at their favorite hole or following their favorite golfer, spectators can do the same with particular jumps and riders during Saturday’s cross-country portion.
Peddicord noted each portion’s background in military cavalry exercises.
“We now rival other countries as well as other states in the U.S. on the impact of what equestrian sports means to us,” Hasseltine said. “This event will be huge on putting a flag in the state of Maryland, in Cecil County that equestrian sports are important to us, important to our economy and important to the citizens of the state.”