For Olympic equestrian gold medalist David O'Connor, coming back to Maryland is always nice, especially when the trip involves some friendly competition.
The Gaithersburg native and some of the other top equestrian competitors in the world are descending on Cecil County for the Fair Hill International, which opens today and continues through Sunday at the state-owned Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area.
Widely recognized as one of the country's top equestrian competitions, the four-day program will attract nearly 100 horses, a record number for the event.
"It is shaping up great," said Patrick McGaughan, executive director at Fair Hill. "We have the largest number of horses, and we have 14 Olympic veterans competing. We are real happy to have this group."
Ireland, Mexico, Canada, Australia and the United States will be represented, though the headline riders are clearly O'Connor and Australian Phillip Dutton.
O'Connor, 39, who lives in The Plains, Va., won the gold medal in individual eventing at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, aboard Custom Made. The gold was the U.S. Equestrian Team's first since the 1984 Games.
Dutton, 38, representing Australia, owns team gold medals in eventing from the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He manages a horse farm in West Grove, Pa.
"It is a friendly rivalry. We'll see who wins and go have a beer afterward," O'Connor said. "We are just competitors, and we both like to win. The competition really makes you a better rider."
Fair Hill International festivities open at 9 a.m. today with dressage, one of three cumulative elements that comprise eventing. Dressage puts horse and rider through several tests of flexibility, balance and movement.
The other two eventing components are cross country over a 50-mile course and stadium jumping, which are scheduled for tomorrow and Sunday, respectively.
O'Connor and Dutton have done well at Fair Hill in the past. Dutton won Fair Hill eventing championships in 1996 and 2000; O'Connor took Fair Hill titles in 1993, 1997 and 1999.
"It's a great event at a beautiful place, and it is at the end of the year, so you are always looking forward to it," said O'Connor, who will compete on two mounts, Tigger Too and The Native. "I'm not looking to take it quietly, that's for sure."
Other top competitors include Kimberly Vinoski and Julie Burns. Vinoski, a Scottsville, Va., native, finished third at Fair Hill last year, and Burns, from Newnan, Ga., competed in the 2000 Olympics.
"There are probably a group of six or seven that could win," O'Connor said. "It's a tough course, one of the most difficult courses in the world at its level."
Fair Hill also will have several driving events this week, competition in which horses pull carriages.
And Michael Muir, president of U.S. Driving for the Disabled and a multiple sclerosis patient, will demonstrate carriage-driving at noon tomorrow. He is on the final leg of his Horsedrawn Journey Across America, a California-to-Washington, D.C., trip to raise support and membership for USDFD.
Facts and figures
What: Fair Hill International
When: Today through Sunday; gates 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today through Saturday; 8 a.m. on Sunday (last event 1 p.m.)
Where: Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, Cecil County.
Events: 14 Olympians, including Maryland native David O'Connor, will take part in several world-class competitions, including the U.S. Equestrian Team Fall Eventing Championship, the USET Four-In-Hand Driving Championships, and the final leg of the Jaguar Triple Crown of Driving.
Tickets: Today and tomorrow: $8 per person; Saturday: $12 per person; Sunday: $10 per person. A four-day pass is $30. Parking is $5 per car, and children 12 and under are admitted free.