Throwback Thursday: From The Beginning, Fair Hill Has Been The Ultimate Test

Oct 17, 2019 - 8:05 AM

From the inaugural running in 1989, the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI4*-L has earned the reputation as one of the biggest, toughest cross-country tests in the United States. With its hilly terrain and mid-October weather often a factor, riders know if they complete Fair Hill they’re ready for a five-star.

A staple of the fall season on the East Coast, the event started out of necessity following the end of the Chesterland Three-Day Event (Pennsylvania) in 1988.

Fair Hill’s roots go back to 1925, when horseman William du Pont Jr. set out to create a nature preserve where he could foxhunt and run steeplechases in Elkton, Maryland.

Du Pont eventually acquired more than 7,600 acres, and he took his time to establish healthy turf over seven years before running horses over his steeplechase course. He also built bridges over the roads and tunnels under them for foxhunting.

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Karen O’Connor and Nos Ecus topped the first Fair Hill International in 1989. John Strassburger Photo

In 1975, nine years after du Pont died, the state of Maryland purchased 5,633 acres from his estate, and that became Fair Hill State Natural Resources Management Area.

In 1989, Elkins Wetherill and John Ryan, organizers of Chesterland, were looking to relocate the fall three-day and brought on Trish Gilbert to help move the event to Fair Hill.

Great Britain’s Mike Tucker designed the first cross-country course, and it was built just in time, as builders Richard Newton, Hugh Morshead and Kenny Baker were hampered by a wet summer.

“The scope of the cross-country course’s influence was a surprise to many people,” wrote John Strassburger in the Nov. 10, 1989, issue of the Chronicle. “On the first walk, it looked to be a fairly straightforward, though definitely big, course set on a varied and rolling piece of land across Gallaher Road from the course used for the advanced horse trial. The steeplechase phase was held in the field used for the timber races at the annual Fair Hill Steeplechase Races. Phases A and C wound their way through the thick woods ablaze with red, brown and yellow leaves.”

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Young rider Nini Stevenson led after dressage at Fair Hill in 1989 on Tai-Pan but was eliminated on cross-country. John Strassburger Photo

Fair Hill can be a lovely fall weekend or the coldest, wettest, muddiest time you’ve ever experienced, as anyone who competed in 2009 will know! In its first year, it was an Indian summer, near 80 degrees and dry with little wind, which meant only two horses made the optimum time of 11 minutes.

Only 22 of 35 starters completed cross-country, with Karen O’Connor (née Lende) taking home the win on Nos Ecus after a clear show jumping round.

O’Connor and the 10-year-old bay Anglo-Arabian gelding (Fric—Doride) had come off a win at the Radnor Hunt Three-Day (Pennsylvania) in the advanced division after spending part of the spring on the sidelines with an injury.

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Kelli McMullen and MacAvity finished in second place at Fair Hill in 1989. Cappy Jackson Photo

O’Connor had the advantage of having ridden the course first on Sanadiki. “I knew before I set out where I had to be, but I cut it a little close,” she told the Chronicle. “I really wanted to have a rail in hand going into show jumping. In the end, the dressage scores made the difference even though the results changed so much.”

Faults were scattered throughout the course, and the field was relatively inexperienced, with 15 riding in their first or second CCI.

“The first quarter had a lot to do,” said O’Connor. “The second and third quarters had very little to do, but the ground was much more undulating than it appeared, so you couldn’t gallop as fast as you might want to. Then there was a lot to do in the fourth quarter, and you couldn’t make up the time.”

O’Connor and Nos Ecus competed for a few more years, including taking third place in the CCI4*-L at Kentucky in 1990.

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Michael Godfrey and Winters Tale jumped to third at Fair Hill in 1989. Cappy Jackson Photo

Over the years, Fair Hill has become a testing ground for horses and riders, with big names taking home the trophy. David O’Connor has won five times and Phillip Dutton four times. Other riders like Jennie Brannigan, Tamie Smith and Frankie Thieriot Stutes have counted a win at Fair Hill as a turning point in their career. Many great horses have galloped across Fair Hill’s hallowed ground and gone on to greater things, such as Giltedge, Custom Made, The Foreman, Neville Bardos and McKinlaigh.

This year marks the final running of the CCI4*-L at Fair Hill, as the 2020 October event will move to the steeplechase part of the property as the Maryland CCI5*-L. The event will continue to hold the CCI3*-L and the U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse East Coast Championships, while Morven Park will host a new CCI4*-L in early October.

The Chronicle will be on site all weekend to bring you news and beautiful photos , so stay tuned to coth.com as we celebrate a final year of the CCI4*-L at Fair Hill.

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