You pull into the main entrance of the Fair Hill Training Center off Maryland Route 213 and head toward the woods. As you drive over the gravel and dirt—by barns named for Parlo and Fairy Chant—you know you're in the right place.
In the acres of lush green that appear on the left, a couple of riders aboard the athletes in training are sauntering through some easy morning paces. After a handful of more twists, beyond a horse path that leads to the one-mile dirt main track, surrounding its seven-eighths mile synthetic counterpart, you angle into a parking spot outside a white barn with a welcoming front-porch.
You step inside the shedrow in time to see the future runner-up in the third leg of the Triple Crown placidly walking down the aisle of the beautifully finished wood interior past fully-meshed stall doors that maximize the airy nature inside the barn. Some of his cohorts are taking a spin around the glorified courtyard just outside the barn's office in preparation for going to the track with the next set. Others are being led to paddocks to graze before it is their turn to be saddled.
You can't help but note how so many beings, both human and equine, go about their morning activities with the demeanor of those in the midst of a wellness retreat.
"I guess if you can't keep a horse happy here, you've got a problem," Fair Hill's general manager Sally Goswell said on a recent spring morning as she watched the smattering of activity on the track. "The horse just isn't going to be happy."
Fair Hill is not some sanctuary preaching positive energy and renewal. For horses based within the more than 300 acres situated north of Elkton, Md., those vibes just happen to be a by-product that comes with access to the all-encompassing facility that began as an unfashionable racetrack alternative and evolved into a wonderfully unique year-round conditioning operation.
Founded in 1983, Fair Hill all but locked down its best-kept-secret-in racing status until the ill-fated Barbaro—developed under trainer Michael Matz on the peaceful grounds—captured the 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and in the process blew the lid off the bucolic base. The facility's honor roll has grown since and includes champions Animal Kingdom and Main Sequence, grade 1 winners A. P. Indian and Miss Temple City, and countless other graded stakes victors, who drive home the point that the traditional racetrack setting is not the only place a good racehorse can develop.
If the spacious barns and paddocks and pastures and meticulously maintained tracks don't conjure up the phrase "horse heaven" fast enough, the Fair Hill Therapy Center reinforces the sentiments of trainers such as Graham Motion, Arnaud Delacour, and Michael Stidham, who maintain Fair Hill has everything you could want for the task of training an equine athlete.
It is nothing like the environment Goswell and her husband, Mike, came onto 33 years ago—which itself is a tribute to the commitment of all those who came and decided to stay.
"Mike and I moved up here in 1984. There were only two barns then, and some owners that Mike trained for signed up to build a barn, which is why we stayed," Goswell recalled. "We've seen it through the whole thing. And if someone had told me 30 years ago we'd be what we are today, I don't think I would have believed them."
Fair Hill's early years were not exactly a blueprint for a picturesque outcome. Once part of more than 5,000 acres owned by William duPont Jr.—who campaigned such top runners and Fair Hill barn namesakes as Parlo, Fairy Chant, and Chevation under his famed Foxcatcher banner—the original concept for the training center was conceived by veterinarian Dr. John R.S. Fisher, who negotiated a long-term lease with the state of Maryland. The idea was to create a facility made of privately owned barns that operated under a condominium-like structure.
While there was some initial backing, spurred in part by a tax break available at the time for anyone who built a barn there, the money dried up within a few years as the tax break went away. Owners who had put in upward of $500,000 to get their structure up and running ended up giving barns away for a single dollar, if they could unload them at all. Stalls were being rented for $2 a day to get some form of income, a figure that was disgruntling to the barn owners paying $6.50 per stall, per day.
After about 10 years of keeping the faith, the Goswells, along with a group of other Fair Hill occupants, took control and adjusted the business model, shutting down the barns they and the association owned and only renting them if someone signed a lease.
"It was a bit of a rocky road here for quite a while," Goswell said. "We had so much money tied up here that I couldn't believe that this thing wouldn't work. And there were other people that thought the same. So a group of us owners decided we were just going to close it down and not rent (the barns) unless someone signs a lease, pays us a security deposit, and pays at least what the owners are paying.
"Then Delaware Park got slots (in 1995) and racing got big. And they had nowhere to stable the Arabians. So (the Arabian trainers) came in and leased two barns from us and paid up front, so we had some money to work with. And people realized, 'These guys are serious. If we don't sign a lease and pay, they're not going to let us in here.' We got paying people in here, and somehow we had money. And one thing kind of led to another."
What it led to was trainers and owners realizing they could shift their base to an idyllic private facility located driving distance from a fistful of top racing jurisdictions.
Fed up with dealing with racing secretaries telling him where he could run, Matz bought a Fair Hill barn and became a mainstay. Motion initially brought 10 horses in and leased, eventually settling into the area and lifestyle to the point where his Herringswell Stables now owns two barns, including Chevation I, which currently houses multiple graded stakes winner and Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRABets (G1) runner-up Irish War Cry, Miss Temple City, and grade 1 winner Ascend.
More have followed to the point where there are now 19 barns and a horse population close to 700. The current structures are each valued at $1.5 million.
"When I started 20 years ago, it wasn't fashionable to train at a training center," Motion said. "That was kind of unheard of. Then Michael came along with Barbaro and we had Animal Kingdom and it went from being unfashionable to almost the opposite. Now it's almost flipped the other way.
"The biggest thing is you can do so many different things with the horses. There are no restrictions with what we can do. And we've also got so many places we can run. You're an hour from the Maryland tracks; you're two hours from Monmouth, three-to-four hours from New York, an hour from Penn National."
The converts continue to emerge.
Stidham has been devoted to the Illinois racing circuit, and for two years he held off on taking owner David Ross up on his offer to shift to Fair Hill for the spring and summer. With Illinois' enduring struggles too great to inspire much faith going forward, Stidham finally made the move to Fair Hill this year and has been admittedly spoiled by the reality of what he had been missing out on.
Among the many features in the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center operated by former trainer Bruce Jackson are a hyperbaric chamber, a salt vapor room, and saltwater spa.
None of the treatments are miracle cures to "make them run any faster or jump any faster," Jackson explained. But having such state-of-the-art healing and recovery tools just a short walk away from the barn is one of the many reasons those based on Fair Hill's grounds wonder why anyone with the means to be there would remain elsewhere.
"From the employees to the horses to myself, it's just so much more relaxed," Stidham said. "I call it the anti-racetrack because basically all the things that you would like to do at a racetrack that you can't do, you can do here.
"The way I see the racetracks now over the last 10-15 years is, racetrack management has decided it's OK to allow the backside to be in shambles, barns falling down, not really taking care of the backside as well as they used to. That's the norm now. And this is the opposite. This place is manicured; everyone is so nice, and they want to help you instead of work against you like a lot of the racetracks do. So for me, it's like a breath of fresh air."
You watch Stidham's constant grin as he treks through the grassy knolls outside his barn, pointing out the area where he plans to install his own salt vapor room and where the stall with the therapeutic vibration plate already resides. You note how at home he already seems in an environment where he is a relative newcomer, and you depart realizing that's just another perk that comes with spending any amount of time within the haven.
"The horses know when they come home; they start hollering when they come through the gate," Goswell said. "They know when they get here they can chill."