After struggling through 1990s, Fair Hill becomes focus of racing world

Training center tucked in Cecil County has built a reputation with different approach

May 15, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

ELKTON — — Tucked in the northeast corner of Maryland, a sprawling yet unassuming complex has become the focus of the horse racing world during its most important season.

The Fair Hill Training Center is currently home to Animal Kingdom, the 21-1 long shot who just won the Kentucky Derby.

All eyes are fixed on the muscular, chestnut brown colt as he readies for Saturday's Preakness Stakes. A victory at Pimlico Race Course would give him a clear shot at a Triple Crown, a feat not accomplished since 1978.

Thanks to the success of its thoroughbred tenants — it was the haunt of Barbaro, a champion thoroughbred and 2006 Derby winner who died long before his time — the training center's prestige is booming.

And yet 16 years ago, Fair Hill was almost bankrupt.

Facing tough times in 1995, the center was saved when nearby Delaware Park, buoyed by the revenue from slot machines, leased several barns at the training center.

"We almost went under," said Sally Goswell, manager at the facility. "You couldn't give these barns away. One sold for $10,000, another for $15,000, and we were glad to get them off our hands."

Completed in 1983, the training center, set in a tranquil nook of Cecil County, opened with three barns and 72 horses. Now it has 18 barns and 650 thoroughbreds. Those barns that sold 15 years ago for as little as $10,000 now bring upwards of $1 million. That's what Team Valor, which owns Animal Kingdom, paid for its stable area this year.

Animal Kingdom is trained by Graham Motion, who has saddled up his charges at Fair Hill for 10 years.

Why train horses here, on 350 acres amid trout streams and covered bridges, far from the racket at a race track? Why break from the decades-old tradition of working with horses on the ovals where they'll actually race?

"It's a relaxed atmosphere, away from the pressures and the intensity of the track," Motion said Thursday. "It's a better setting for equines and for humans.

"Animal Kingdom went out and ate grass for 20 minutes today. He couldn't do that at Pimlico."

Past and future

Drive up Route 273, through the training center in Cecil County, and contrasts abound.

The rural two-lane road bisects racing's past and future.

On the right sits a steeplechase course nearly 100 years old, where the ghosts of do-or-die jumpers and their white-knuckled jockeys punctuate the landscape's hoary past. On the left, it's another story: a modern training facility boasting immaculate stables, a cutting-edge therapy center, serpentine wooded trails and a state-of-the-art synthetic track.

But only recently has the training center earned acclaim. Five years ago, Barbaro stabled and galloped here before suffering a broken leg in the Preakness, which led to his death.

"Barbaro put us on the map," said Goswell. "Before that, owners weren't aware that you could train good horses anywhere but at the race track. Barbaro's success opened their eyes that their horses could train here and have a nice lifestyle, too."

Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, settled here a decade ago.

"There's a Tapeta (synthetic) track, a turf track, a dirt track, hundreds of acres in which to ride, and a vet clinic on site," Matz said. "What more do you need?"

At Fair Hill, many trainers, including Motion, routinely treat their horses to poky walks past watchful deer, squirrels and even a bald eagle that circles lazily overhead.

"Turn these animals back to nature, let them stop and pick at the grass, and they love it," Goswell said. "Some trainers want the hustle and bustle of the race track, and that's fine. But a lot of horses who live there get sour, going out on the same track and doing the same thing every day. Especially the nervous ones."

Carved from the verdant 5,600-acre estate of the late William du Pont, Jr., a financier and avid equestrian, the training center pays homage to the sportsman, naming its barns for some of du Pont's favorite horses. The land is steeped in racing lore: during The Great Depression, du Pont built a punishing timber course and staged the inaugural race in 1934 before 10,000 cheering socialites. One rider was carted off with a broken nose and head injuries; a horse broke its shoulder on the sixth jump and had to be destroyed.

Twice a week, Fair Hill trainer Tim Woolley guides his charges "out back," as the woods behind the barns are known, down leafy trails flanked by ramshackle structures and crumbling ruins of ages past. Thoroughbreds have the run of all 5,600 acres, most of which is a state recreation facility complete with trout streams and a nature center.

"You come across old farm buildings and derelict houses, and it makes you wonder," said Woolley, who has been here for 20 years. "It's like riding back in time. It gives the horses something different to look at. It's good for their minds."

Resurrection

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