Day of racing begins Fair Hill's summer

Tradition: The Memorial Day steeplechase meet gets the season under way at the Cecil County state park. Workers have been busy preparing the grounds for 15,000 visitors.

May 28, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

FAIR HILL -- Down the stretch they come.

Jack Baker chugs toward the finish line, but he's not aboard a horse. He's steering a tractor and trimming the emerald oval that is the turf track at Fair Hill -- racing to get ready for the state park's summer season.

Use of Maryland's 47 state parks surges on Memorial Day weekend and again when schools close for the summer. Preparing for the return of the warm-weather crowds means a lot of spring cleaning. It means painting, fixing anything that's broken and hiring seasonal workers. And it certainly means cutting grass.

Hate yard work? Imagine staying on top of hundreds of acres of state park fields -- including the three miles of turf and timber track that must be mowed for the one-day steeplechase meet Monday at Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County.

"It gets very, very busy as the days get longer," said Fair Hill manager Edward L. Walls.

Baker, the park's maintenance chief, added, "The big push is to get the grounds looking clean. Takes a lot of time, a lot of work."

Fair Hill, long known as an equestrian center, is open year-round. It's the site of dog shows, weddings and other activities. The 5,613-acre park even manages a deer hunt during the winter.

The spring season was kick-started a couple of weeks ago with the Scottish games, which featured sheep-dog trials and a "caber toss," a traditional sport in which strongmen heave telephone poles.

But summer really gets under way with race day, the Memorial Day tradition that started decades ago as a fund-raiser for Union Hospital in Elkton. When you're expecting a crowd of 15,000, you want to look your best. That's why the fences at the saddling paddock have received a fresh coat of white paint.

And you want to put on a show. That's why contractors were stringing wire and hanging loudspeakers this week for the sound system and testing the recorded bugle that calls the horses to the post.

Workers from AmTote International were connecting the computerized machines that handle the wagers, and testing the board that displays the odds.

William H. "Howard" Skinner, 71, a volunteer who has lived at Fair Hill since he was 3, was putting a coat of flat black paint on a section of Jump No. 8 in the timber race. An unpainted board could spook the horses, he said.

"These thoroughbreds are a little bit shy if things are different," he said.

The park's equine traditions can be traced to Delaware banker William du Pont Jr., who in the 1920s began acquiring farmland for fox chasing. A relative of the late William du Pont regularly feeds the park's red foxes dog food laced with medicine, Walls said.

The park is supported with proceeds from its hay-growing operation. One hayfield is the site of a reproduction of a 19th-century, rural Ohio homestead -- a set from the film, "Beloved."

Walls said that while the Memorial Day races go on, another 5,000 people will be on the park's 75 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails. Park officials are hoping that Fair Hill's trails and fishing holes will attract more people from more crowded parks in the Baltimore area.

"The trails at Patapsco and Gunpowder are being loved to death," said Susan O'Brien, a state Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman.

This week, a thunderstorm barreled through the park, knocking down trees and blocking trails. Park workers cut away enough to clear trails. Still, much of a large beech sprawled along the edge.

"We'll come back and clean it up," Walls said. "Our priorities are up at the track."

Richard P. Barton, superintendent of the State Forest and Park Service, said preparations for the big crowds begin in the winter, when workers repair equipment and sharpen blades they'll use to spruce up the park.

"Most of the preparations are very mundane -- cleaning, raking, mowing, painting, patching this and fixing that," Barton said. "It's much like someone who has a home, who has to do all these little things to convert their home from winter to summer."

Throughout the state system, rotted boards are replaced on picnic tables. Grills are cleaned. The system's 2,500 campsites are groomed, and campground stores and park concession stands are stocked. Bathrooms that had been shut down for the winter are opened for the season.

"That's about as unglamorous as it gets," Barton said, adding that the job brings an inevitable complication.

"It never fails," he said. "When you turn the water back on, there are new leaks."

A toll-free number (888-432-CAMP) to reserve campsites, cabins and pavilions at all state parks and forests was established in February.

To get ready for the crowds, the park system hires 650 seasonal workers. But many aren't on the job until mid-June.

"Until then, we are just hanging in there, trying to get all our work done," Barton said.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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