Fair Hill To Finally Get Its Day With Breeders' Cup

Posted: October 29, 1986

FAIR HILL, Md. — Early in this century, William du Pont Jr. dreamed of creating a fox- hunting preserve without equal.

He also hoped to stage the most important steeplechase race in the world, a contest that would match or surpass competition over the fabled fences of Aintree Race Course, home of the Grand National in England.

Beginning in the 1920s, du Pont achieved one of those dreams. He assembled 7,000 acres of land, which straddled the Pennsylvania-Maryland border near Kennett Square, into one of the country's last baronial fox-hunting preserves.

Du Pont, who died in 1965, never quite fulfilled his second dream. He built his American version of Aintree and named it Fair Hill Race Course. But the course's major race, the Foxcatcher Steeplechase, did not attain the stature that he had anticipated.

Now, more than two decades after his death, a premier, world-class steeplechase event comes to Fair Hill. On Saturday, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase will be run over the course that William du Pont planned and built.

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With a $250,000 purse, the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase will be the world's richest race over fences. Entries will be drawn today, and an international field of 12 competitors is expected for the race's 2 3/8 miles over 16 fences.

Likely to head the field is Flatterer, the three-time Eclipse Award winner who is well on his way to an unprecedented fourth straight steeplechase championship.

The Breeders' Cup Steeplechase should feature a rematch of Flatterer and Gacko, the beaten favorite in the French Champion Hurdle in June. Flatterer finished second in that race outside Paris, and Gacko was third. Le Rheusois, the winner, is injured and was not nominated for the Fair Hill race.

Also among the horses pre-entered last week for the race was Census, winner of Belmont Park's Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Handicap earlier this month. Fair Hill also will stage four other live races and will conduct simulcast betting on five of the seven Breeders' Cup races, worth a total of $10 million, from Santa Anita Park.

The Santa Anita races that will be simulcast are the $1 million Juvenile,

the $1 million Mile, the $1 million Distaff, the $2 million Turf and the $3 million Classic. They will be shown on an 11-by-15-foot screen that will be set up in front of Fair Hill's grandstand.

In time, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase has the potential to approach the stature of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, arguably the most important steeplechase in the world.

Like most of the other Breeders' Cup races, the steeplechase will have an international field, with five probable starters from outside the United States.

In fact, some Americans are purchasing horses from overseas especially for the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase. Turfway Park co-owner Jerry Carroll and a partner purchased Mr. Asia, who has been racing in New Zealand.

"We are absolutely delighted by the response. It just highlights the international flavor of steeplechasing," said Charles Colgan, executive vice president of the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, the organization that oversees American jump racing.

American steeplechasing, on the strength of its hunt meets, such as Fair Hill and the Radnor Hunt Races in Malvern, will have a 1986 purse distribution of more than $2 million, a record.

That is a solid gain over last year's $1,737,000 in purses, the former record. Most of the money last year (more than $1.3 million) was distributed at hunt meetings like Fair Hill.

To mark the richest steeplechase ever run, Fair Hill is undergoing a $600,000 face lift that includes replacing its aging, stone-and-concrete Aintree Stand with a new grandstand of steel and precast concrete.

The improvements were paid for by the state of Maryland, which owns the race course and the portion of the former Foxcatcher hunting grounds within the state.

On firm financial ground again, Fair Hill also has found new strength since the dark days of 1979, when it was losing money. Under executive director Stephen P. Groat, Fair Hill has made a steady comeback and attracts large crowds for its two days in the spring and one day of racing in the fall.

Groat now is putting the finishing touches on preparations for a day no less important than the opening of Fair Hill in 1934. "It's pretty mind- boggling. Here we are, a little race course in the middle of nowhere," Groat said. "And we are going to have the finest steeplechase race in the world." In truth, Fair Hill was the only logical location for a major-league jumping race on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. It has the grandstand and box seats, a rarity at American hunt meets. Also, Fair Hill is unique among the hunt meets in one very important regard. It has legal betting.

The grass for its steeplechase and turf courses was planted in 1926 and was not used until Aug. 25, 1934, when the first Fair Hill races were held. Colin ''Skipper" Lofting, a Chester County resident who rode to a second-place finish in one of the races, remembers the day.

Fair Hill, he said, was a "big step forward because it was one of the few tracks among the hunt meets where the spectator could see everything." And so it is today. The course rode well, and so did the fences, which were of special interest to du Pont, who wanted a course with fences higher than Aintree.

One of the people tending those fences was Arthur Damby, a Broomall resident who continues to care for Fair Hill and its fences. "If we had kept going, they would have been the biggest fences in the world," Damby, 71, said. "We always built a fence that the horse could brush through at least 10 inches. Below that, you were in trouble."

Fair Hill's natural-brush fences have been gone for many years, and Saturday's races will be run over artificial brush fences. Du Pont's turf continues to be in excellent shape and required only normal maintenance to be ready for the big Breeders' Cup day.

From the beginning, Fair Hill has been a cultural melting pot as well as a race course. Henry Worcester Smith, a writer and sportsman of a half-century ago, noted that the first Fair Hill races drew from all levels of a Depression society. "It was a gathering of the farmers of Maryland, the fishermen of the Eastern Shore of Delaware, the mechanics of the du Pont works, workers in the paper mill at Newark as well as sportsmen from every hunt in North America from Montreal, Canada, to Texas to the Woodbrook Hunt Club in Tacoma, Wash."

On Saturday, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase again will draw from all strata of society, attracting those who savor the sight of a horse soaring over a fence at full stride.

In that regard, Fair Hill is ageless.

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