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Horse Racing

Maryland 5 Star equestrian event seeks to grow in second year as Prince George’s County welcomes Washington International Horse Show

Alexander O’Neal and Milky Bar Os go over an obstacle in the USEA Young Event Horse East Coast Championships for 5-year-olds. The Maryland 5 Star equestrian event at Fair Hill is one of two Eventing competitions held in the United States. Horses and riders are tested in dressage, cross-country and show jumping.

ELKTON, Md. — Elite horses jumped and performed choreographed routines in front of judges Friday in Cecil County and on Saturday, they’ll leap over dozens of roughly 4-foot hurdles as they gallop a 4-mile cross-country course as part of the Maryland 5 Star, one of the most prestigious eventing competitions in the equestrian world.

The Fair Hill Special Event Zone in Elkton, which was improved over the last few years with $27 million in public and private investment, began hosting the annual competition last year. This year, competition began Thursday and will last until Sunday, with the marquee cross-country event taking place Saturday.

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The equestrian sport of eventing, which originated to test cavalry ahead of battle, is essentially a triathlon — if triathlons were run by horses and included ballet.

Riders and horses compete in show jumping (leaping over obstacles), cross-country (a lengthy run over barriers and through puddles), as well as dressage (a choreographed routine that highlights a horse’s ability to trot with controlled, defined movements, almost like ballet or figure skating).

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“It’s basically an Ironman competition for horses,” explained Jeff Newman, the president and CEO of the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill. “These are the Michael Jordan of horses and they can do amazing things.”

Andrew McConnor rides D’Luxe Steel in the dressage event Friday in the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill.

As in horse racing, these horses and their riders compete in front of spectators. But that’s largely where similarities between the sports end.

The competition is less focused upon a burst of speed than on controlled movement. In dressage, horses trot and walk in front of three judges, who are situated in separate wooden structures around the outdoor arena to scrutinize each step.

Unlike racehorses, which peak around the age of 4 years, eventing horses reach their prime around age 11.

Hannah Sue Hollberg of Kentucky rode one of her horses, age 19, for the final time this weekend at the Maryland 5 Star. She said she’d been trying not to cry.

“You have to really have a teammate in your horse, which is special,” she said.

Christina Henriksen rides JTH Zest in the dressage event Friday in the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill.

The Maryland 5 Star is one of only seven five-star competitions in eventing across the world, as classified by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, and one of only two in the U.S.; the other is in Lexington, Kentucky. England (where there are two), Germany, France and Australia also host five-star eventing competitions.

General admission tickets for the Maryland 5 Star are $15, with four-day, all-inclusive VIP packages selling for $950.

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Last year, the Maryland 5 Star saw just over 20,000 attendees over the four days and Newman is hoping to see that number grow to 25,000 this year. The competition expects to remain a five-star event for years and the hope, Newman said, is to see annual growth of about 5,000 fans, eventually attracting 50,000 fans. The Kentucky event draws more than 80,000, and Newman said that shows the potential.

The Maryland 5 Star isn’t the only prestigious equine event in the state in October, which Gov. Larry Hogan has proclaimed Maryland Horse Month.

The Washington International Horse Show, which debuted in 1958, has recently called Washington home, but it is relocating to Prince George’s County for the first time since 1999 this year. It will take place Oct. 24 to Oct. 30 at The Show Place & Equestrian Center, an arena in Upper Marlboro.

It is also classified as a five-star, but in a different discipline. The Washington show is a jumping competition and will feature different riders and horses than the Maryland 5 Star.

Representation from 10 countries and about 10,000 attendees are expected.

“We’re excited that it’s finally here,” said Leslie Graves, president and CEO of Experience Prince George’s, “and we’re working hard with them to ensure it doesn’t leave the jurisdiction ever again.”


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