The History of the CCI*** at The Dutta Corp Fair Hill International
It must have been fate. In 1925, William duPont, Jr. began to assemble a tract of land on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border that would eventually encompass more that 7,600 acres. He wanted to create a nature preserve where he could raise some cattle and engage in his two favorite pastimes: horseracing and foxhunting.
He was nothing if not a patient man – as he gradually added to his holdings he designed a spectacular steeplechase course and then waited seven years before he allowed a horse to set foot on it. He realized the importance of thick, smooth, healthy turf and he knew that nature couldn’t be rushed. The first race meeting took place in 1934.
But, in the interim, Mr. duPont didn’t sit idly by. He set about preparing his new property for the foxhunting that he loved. He moved his pack of hounds up from his family home in Virginia and, to ensure their safety, he built bridges over the roads, tunnels under them, and encircled the property with 17 miles of “super fence”, a chain link barrier that was set in three-foot concrete footers with a “T” section across the top. Even the most aggressive hound (or fox) couldn’t dig under it or climb over it.
And so it stayed for many years. Mr. duPont died on New Year’s Eve, 1965 and, nine years later, the state of Maryland purchased from his estate the 5,633 acre portion of Fair Hill that lay within its borders.
In 1989, Elkins “Elkie” Wetherill and John Ryan, organizers of the Chesterlands Three-Day-Event, which had offered high performance competition at its former location in Unionville, PA, were looking for a new site for its CCI***. They were directed to Fair Hill and enlisted the aid of Trish Gilbert, who lived just down the road in Churchville, MD. When they saw the part of Fair Hill that lay east of Gallaher Road and south of Rt. 273, they knew they’d found their new home. Its gently rolling terrain, meandering streams, and thick, lush turf made it the ideal venue for eventing
A Founders Committee was formed, consisting of Trish Gilbert, Denis Glaccum, Kate Jackson, Jim Ligon, Bodgie Read, John Ryan, Col. D. W. Thackeray, Judy Thayer, Dick Thompson, Elkins Wetherill, and Lana Wright.
They secured the services of England’s Michael Tucker, a world renowned expert, to design a cross-country course that was worthy of its surroundings. Like a talented sculptor who “sees” the image within the marble, Tucker accepted the challenge.
By blending the obstacles, the water, and the galloping lanes with the natural contours of the land, he produced a course that exceeded expectations.. Mr. duPont would have been proud.
The first event was conducted in October, 1989, and the CCI*** was won by Karen Lende (better known today as Karen O’Connor) on Nos Ecus.
The venue was an instant success and Tucker returned in 1990 to show that his first effort wasn’t a fluke. That edition was won by Charlie Plumb on Landino and, to round out the first three, Derek di Grazia won in 1991 on Our Busby.
Tucker continued to apply his magical touch to Fair Hill for eight more years until, in 1999, he passed the reins to di Grazia. By now, the Carmel Valley, CA native had retired from actively competing and was beginning to make a name for himself in the select world of cross-country course designers.
The Fair Hill organizers had followed his progress and thought it was time for him to tackle a CCI*** course. He rose to the challenge with alacrity and, in short order, he produced a championship course that has only gotten better with each passing year.
That little anecdote highlights the importance of Fair Hill’s influence in the world of U. S. eventing. Having been given the chance to design his first CCI*** course at Fair Hill, di Grazia made the most of the opportunity and soon his courses dotted the American landscape.
In 2011 he reached the pinnacle of his profession when he became the cross-country course designer for the Rolex Kentucky CCI****.
Fair Hill has become a breeding ground not only for course designers but also for the people who turn those designs into reality. Mick Costello, who cut his teeth at Fair Hill, is now the official course builder for the Rolex CCI****. And Eric Bull, who has built the Fair Hill courses (among many others) for the past 12 years, travelled to Rio de Janeiro in 2007 to build the course for the Pan American Games.
But it’s among the horses and riders that Fair Hill has earned its well-deserved reputation as a cradle of champions. It has always attracted the best of the best, and that’s not a coincidence. Riders come here to test themselves and their horses to see if they have the talent and courage to succeed at the upper levels.
Indeed, Phillip Dutton could have been speaking for everyone when he said, “When you get around the course at Fair Hill, you know you have a cross-country horse.”
Stated another way, eventing icon Bruce Davidson has been quoted as saying, “You don’t get a better competition than Fair Hill and you don’t get a better competition than Kentucky.”
A partial list of riders who have won the CCI*** at Fair Hill amounts to a veritable Who’s Who in American Eventing – David O’Connor (5 times), Phillip Dutton (4), Karen Lende O’Connor (2), and Bruce Davidson.
Those stalwarts have captured more than half of the 22 runnings to date and have parlayed those accomplishments into Olympic glory for themselves and their country.
That trend shows no sign of abating. In recent years, a new generation of riders has burst upon the scene and appears ready to follow in the legends’ footsteps. In 2006, Gina Miles and McKinlaigh came all the way from California to win the newly renamed Dansko Fair Hill International (the Dansko shoe company, a long time Fair Hill supporter, had become Title Sponsor in 2006.)
That victory qualified Miles and her horse for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, where they took on the best in the world and earned the individual Silver Medal in Eventing.
In 2010, Boyd Martin and Neville Bardos were the highest placed American combination (10th overall) at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
In praising the quality of American venues, Martin pointed out in his blog, “Instead (of funding foreign travel) the USEF could be supporting world-class events like Rebecca Farm, Jersey Fresh, Galway Downs, and Fair Hill. Remember that Neville Bardos . . . is a product of the Fair Hill three-day event; he placed fourth there in 2007 and won in 2009.” High praise indeed, coming from one of the newest superstars of the sport.
And so the saga continues. It’s been 89 years since Mr. duPont started to put his paradise together and those who have followed are determined to preserve his legacy. One week in October every year, that small corner of the property comes alive with horses, tents, and merchants and 15,000 people flock to the site. And the day after the curtain falls on Sunday, the tents are struck, the competitors have returned to their homes, and Fair Hill reverts to its quiet, pristine beauty – just the way Mr. duPont would have wanted it.
Charles T. Colgan