On Jan. 18 the U.S. Equestrian Federation announced that Fair Hill International (Md.) and Great Meadow International (Va.) were named to the short list of potential fall four-star eventing venues out of five submitted.
According to USEF Managing Director of Eventing Joanie Morris, the current CCI**** Task Force, consisting of chair Howard Simpson and volunteer members Phillip Dutton and Tim Keener, “will request additional information relating to additional commercial aspects including broadcast/sponsorship specifics and any other questions or details relating to the individual proposals.”
The group plans to submit a choice to the USEF Board of Directors no later than the USEF Mid-Year Board Meeting in June. Along with the task force, the USEF Eventing Committee and the International Disciplines Council will also weigh in on the recommendation.
The final proposal will go to the Fédération Equestre Internationale for approval afterwards.
Looking Forward To The Next Phase
“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Carla Geiersbach, executive director of Fair Hill International, about the news that the Elkton site is one of two on the short list.
“We know that the hard work starts now with the next step, which is going from the 30,000-foot view to down in the weeds—logistics and answering specific questions,” she continued. “We’re rolling up our sleeves and really looking forward to that next phase of this process.”
The timing for a four-star bid was right, as Fair Hill joined a task force last year to work on a Maryland horse park system.
When the Maryland Sports Commission helped put together the four-star proposal, the group was already considering a potential horse park system that would include improvements to Fair Hill. The National Steeplechase Association and the Cecil County Fair were among other groups on the task force that would benefit from improvements to Fair Hill.
“The results of it were that instead of having one central location for a horse park like Kentucky, what Maryland wanted to do was have a horse park system,” said Geiersbach. “Prince George’s Equestrian Center is one piece of the horse park system for hunter/jumper horse shows, and Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area was designated a field events zone.”
Whether or not they get the four-star, Fair Hill will do some of its own fundraising, and the Maryland Horse Industry Board and the Maryland Sports Commission will help provide funding for the improvements, although how much Fair Hill receives from the state has not yet been decided.
While there are no concrete designs for the four-star yet, the Fair Hill team has created several renderings of the new venue layout, which would include moving the cross-country to the fairgrounds side of the property. That area already hosts several recognized and schooling horse trials throughout the year, in addition to steeplechase and timber races, and community events.
“Our plan is to have our cross-country course start and end in Saw Mill Field [the current site of the horse trials],” said Geiersbach. “It would come through the old roads and tracks piece of property, which essentially connects Saw Mill to the timber racing course.
“You would have the opportunity to have the terrain from Saw Mill, and the old roads and tracks area is lovely,” she continued. “It’s nice and rolling. Then you come out on the top of the timber course, so you can see all the way to the far end of the course from the grandstand. You would have these long vistas of gallops for all of the people in the grandstands.”
Fair Hill’s four-star plan includes moving the cross-country course to a different part of the property. Rendering provided by Fair Hill International.
The current steeplechase course, which is too narrow to hold a main arena in the middle, would be widened, and the cross-country course could come through the arenas, past improved grandstands and a large trade fair.
Geiersbach said the lack of decent Wi-Fi for live streaming and permanent stabling and infrastructure on the other side of the property, where the international event has been held since its inception 30 years ago, has been a limitation, so the new venue would allow the organization to grow.
The future of the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI** and CCI*** in October, now the USEF National Fall Two-Star and Three-Star Championships, hasn’t been decided should Fair Hill get the four-star.
Derek di Grazia is the course designer for FHI, and he also designs the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Geiersbach said they would love to keep him on as designer of the four-star, but she isn’t sure if the FEI would allow that.
“Through Rolex’s history, they ran a three- and four-star for the first couple of years until their numbers were up to where they would only run a four-star,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a numbers game as far as entries, and what you can run. The fact that it’s the eventing championships in the fall adds an extra bit of complexity, so that is definitely still something that’s up in the air and has not been officially decided. We obviously wouldn’t run them two weeks apart, or run a three-star on Gallaher Road and a four-star over here on the same weekend.”
They’re not ruling out continuing to use the Gallaher Road side for the April CIC*** and advanced horse trials. The property is also used for combined driving.
“It is such a classic course and such a beautiful piece of property that we’d obviously love to continue to use it. It’s well-loved by many groups of people. It’s the quintessential eventing landscape,” she said. “The one thing we really liked about the new venue is it sort of brought us into the 21st century, technology and infrastructure-wise, but the land is still the heart and soul of eventing. It’s not going around a racetrack. It is still long, open gallops and hills and water crossings and terrain and a challenge for horse and rider. We felt that the new venue really combined the best of both worlds. [It’s] a spectator-friendly venue that keeps the heart and soul of eventing because of the land.
“The reason Fair Hill has been so successful over the last 30 years is because of our volunteers. We couldn’t do it without the Fair Hill family,” Geiersbach added.
In The Heart of Horse Country
Great Meadow Foundation President Rob Banner always had a four-star in mind when he joined forces with U.S. Eventing Technical Advisor David O’Connor and other Virginia horsemen to create the Great Meadow International in 2014. The Plains, Va., venue hosted its first FEI Nations Cup in 2016.
“Thrilled sums it up!” said Banner. “This has always been the goal. When we were looking at acquiring the Fleming Farm property, the four-star was definitely the first thing to mind. That’s when I approached David O’Connor, and he said, ‘Well that’s a little early, but let’s think about a Nations Cup.’ That was more of an international thing that would open the door.”
The Great Meadow property now consists of 375 acres. They added a new all-weather arena and warm-up ring last year and have the advantage of irrigation all over the property to maintain ideal footing. Banner is also working with Loudoun and Fauquier county governments to help bring an equine quarantine center to nearby Dulles International Airport.
“We’re prepared,” said Banner. “This is in keeping with the FEI goal of globalization of horse sport, and [USEF]’s goal of bringing high performance equestrian sport to more people that might become involved, or actively supporting growing the different sports—and our [goal], which has always been to anchor the very best in a place that’s been the nexus of equestrianism for more than 200 years.”
Great Meadow International has grown into a popular spectator event. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.
Banner said Great Meadow is considering moving the date of the Nations Cup, usually held in July, to combine with the four-star should they get it. He added that the addition of high performance show jumping or a hunter derby would help make the event a showcase of sport horse activity.
The International Gold Cup steeplechase races, held in October, would not be affected should the event get the four-star.
“We are very concerned to take care of our first tenant, the Virginia Gold Cup, and we are dedicated to helping them have safe racing for spectators and horsemen alike, so we’ll work closely with them to make sure that we prepare a track for cross-country that would cut across the racing track at a perpendicular angle, so that their ground would be protected at all costs,” said Banner. “Our course designer Mike Etherington-Smith is familiar with running courses over ground that’s been considered a race track too, so he’s comfortable in making that happen. We’re improving irrigation all the time, and the footing for both is terribly important.”
With 29,000 hotel rooms in a 40-mile radius, the potential new vetport and 30-year-old turf, plus huge community support behind it, Banner is optimistic about Great Meadow’s chances.
“None of it would have been possible without the support of David O’Connor,” said Banner, who also noted the importance of the organizing committee, Five Rings Equestrian.