Victory for countryside

Horses: A 291-acre farm preserved from dense development near Hunt Valley will begin its new life as a steeplechase course Saturday.

September 27, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When the flapping red flag drops Saturday to start the inaugural running of the Legacy Cup steeplechase races, the event will celebrate the emerald land as much as the horses romping across it.

Four years ago, the 291 acres along Shawan Road west of Interstate 83 near Hunt Valley appeared headed for the same fate as the properties to the east of the busy highway: high-density development.

Charlie Fenwick, however, had another plan.

Fenwick, an automobile dealer and former champion steeplechase rider, helped pull together 19 investors who gave a combined $2.5 million to buy Shawan Farms and establish the nonprofit Land Preservation Trust.

Now Fenwick, 53, hopes to turn the property, known as Shawan Downs, into an equestrian center, with several horse-related events a year. On Saturday, as many as 10,000 horse fans are expected to take to the gentle hills across from Oregon Ridge to watch the first day of racing.

"It's very satisfying and exciting," Fenwick said. "You can see the high-rises on the other side of [Interstate] 83. If this land stays like this forever, it becomes a genuine buffer from any development ever coming down Shawan Road."

Saturday's event is a 15-year dream come true for Fenwick. He first tried to drum up interest in preserving the former farm, owned in part by his stepmother, in 1986. His effort, though, failed to gain much interest.

In 1997, two northern Baltimore County residents, Andre Brewster and Norma "Pedie" Killebrew, decided to make a second push to buy the land and contacted Fenwick.

"This big piece of property was going to be developed and I wanted to see it preserved," said Brewster, a retired corporate lawyer. "One of my ground rules in running this was that once we got it together, Charlie would run it."

As the final strips of fencing are hammered in and the white corporate tents sprout around the racecourse, Fenwick credits Brewster and Killebrew for rallying support to make the effort a success.

Saturday's seven races will offer purses totaling $125,000, including the $25,000 Maryland Million Hurdle and the $30,000 Legacy Cup, a prep race for the steeplechase Breeder's Cup next month in Far Hills, N.J.

Legacy Cup fans will be charged $50 per carload, with proceeds going to Greater Baltimore Medical Center, of which Fenwick is a board member. Tickets must be purchased in advance, by calling 410-666-3676 or visiting the Web site,

Besides the 19 initial investors who helped preserve the land, 150 people gave $10,000 each to raise the $1.5 million needed to turn the farm into a racecourse complete with a 1 1/8 -mile track with timber and hedge hurdle jumps.

The event on Saturday will be one of 40 across the nation sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, based at Fair Hill in Cecil County.

"If you go to Pimlico Race Course, you see what you can see at 50 other places in the country," Fenwick said. "You come here, and it's just countryside. That's unique."

Fenwick knows plenty about steeplechase racing. He first raced as a 17-year-old and won the Maryland Hunt Cup five times, the Grand National 10 times and the English Grand National once, in 1980.

"It's a competitive sport," said Fenwick, who lives on a 140-acre hay farm in Butler and has also trained horses. "The key to being successful is riding good horses. I rode a number of good horses."

As Saturday approaches, he is involved in almost every aspect of getting the property ready. He jumps out of his 2001 Mercedes-Benz - with the American flag tucked in the hood ornament - and hops over a fence to show workers how to properly lay white PVC pipes that will be posted on the rails to help guide the horses and riders around the track.

Driving on the property, he stops the car and reaches down to scoop up a piece of trash. He pulls over to talk to the groundskeeper, asking that certain sections of the track be mowed.

"They say the devil is in the details," he said. "We're finding that out."

Fenwick hopes that other events, such as horse shows and polo matches, will find their way to Shawan Downs. But he intends to see that the final Saturday in September be preserved for steeplechase racing.

"To some degree, this is a social event," Fenwick said. "What we want people to say is, `This is beautiful, this is really beautiful.'"

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