Maryland is horse country.
Those who have long viewed the state as the home of the Preakness - well, you're not wrong about that since the second jewel of in thoroughbred racing's coveted Triple Crown does tend to attract a lot of attention every spring.
But thinking beyond the black-eyed Susans, the state has more – far, far more, in fact – to offer equestrian events, something that became evident this fall at both the Fair Hill Fair Hill Special Event Zone, located in Cecil County, and the Show Place Arena at Prince George's Equestrian Center, in Prince George's County.
"Put both of those together and you see Maryland as one big equestrian park," says Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, and President of the Sport and Entertainment Corporation of Maryland. "We are very serious about horse tourism here and we have a great platform for it."
Need proof? Here it is. First, the MARS Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill presented by Brown Advisory arrived in mid-October and drew the highest level of equestrian competition in eventing - higher, in fact, than Olympic competition, which is 4 stars.
Maryland has one of only two 5 Star facilities in the United States (in fact, there are only seven worldwide). In this case, the prestigious 5 Star (CCI5*) designation is the pinnacle of the sport of eventing, best described as an equestrian triathlon, since it includes three distinct disciplines of cross country racing, dressage and show jumping.
According to Jeff Newman, President & CEO of the Maryland 5 Star Event Committee, the four-day-long event showcased more than 180 elite horses from around the world. It is estimated to have drawn between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors who were able to take in not only equestrian action of the highest caliber but were able to browse the wares of nearly 100 retail vendors in an expo area, as well as a craft wine and beer festival and a fresh food festival. Oh, and there was corgi racing too.
"The amount of content we have really helped to elevate the experience," Newman says. "There was something to do for all ages. I felt like we were opening a new era in the hosting of special events."
Fair Hill Special Event Zone allows plenty of space for those visitors, for the horses – and for everything else. It is the only equine complex in the world with a thoroughbred training center, a one-mile irrigated turf course for flat and jump racing, the elite eventing venue, regulation arenas for show jumping and dressage, extensive stabling facilities, 5,000 acres of public riding trails and fields and a state-of-the-art equine therapy center, as well as youth outreach through an onsite nature center and 4-H programs.
And, Hasseltine adds, some recent upgrades have made the facility even more inviting – both for the 2022 event and for events in years to come. The Equestrian Center Transformation Project added a new Ian Stark-designed cross-country course, included realignment and other upgrades to the historic turf, as well as resurfacing and a new irrigation system. Additionally, changes were made to the equestrian competition rings within the turf course's infield, and to the hospitality infrastructure, such as seating for viewers.
In fact, those upgrades are expected to help attract further events – everything from youth horse shows to elite-level trials.
"But that's not all we have," says Hasseltine, who is quick to point out that the Show Place Arena at Prince George's Equestrian Center, located in Prince George's County, has hosted the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) presented by MARS Equestrian, another CSI W-5 event. And that 5 star event, which took place over a full week (October 24-30), has cemented Maryland's reputation as horse country.
The WIHS will include competition for professionals, amateurs, juniors and children. Highlights include the Longines FEI Jumping World CupTM Washington for the President's Cup and the WIHS Equitation Finals plus community and charity events - all designed not only to showcase the sport but to broaden its reach and appeal to audiences of all ages. (Think pony kissing booths and steeplechases with stick horses).
But those who visit the WIHS will experience not just an event with broad appeal but a venue that can host everything – up to and including the highest level of equestrian competition (and even non-horse-related activities from basketball to black tie dinners).
"It's a very prestigious venue," says Hasseltine, "and we are fielding questions all the time about new opportunities."
The column-free event floor measures 136 feet wide by 260 feet long; with the dasher boards or equestrian footing installed, the usable floor space is 120 feet wide by 240 feet long, with 40-foot-high ceilings. Additionally, the Show Place Arena includes a lobby with box office, a concourse and an oval arena. The concourse level has three banquet rooms. Dressing/locker rooms and production offices are also available.
"We're the only indoor 5 Star event center," says Mary Helen Shaughnessy, who in 2019, was named Executive Director of the Washington International Horse Show.
"It's what our facility has that makes it different - the outdoor space, the ability to stable all the horses onsite at the same time, the fact that the arena itself has room for parties, an exhibitor lounge - there is so much here."
The event, previously stabled at the Capital One Arena, did well, she adds, but the ambience was lacking.
"You couldn't help but notice the empty stands. At Show Place Arena, you are never more than a few rows from the action. It really gives the feeling of the stands being full and creates a level of attainability for spectators. In fact, on the Friday night before the show, spectators are invited to come onto the competition floor and see how tall and wide the jumps are. It's a great photo opportunity."
Take Fair Hill and the Show Place Arena – and add in forthcoming upgrades to two already well-known facilities on the thoroughbred racing circuit, Pimlico Race Course (the Baltimore home of the Preakness) and Laurel Park, located in Anne Arundel County, roll in Maryland's very strong place in the steeplechase (point to point) race community, add in local fairgrounds sprinkled throughout the state and you find a destination that keeps moving from strength to strength with horse tourism.
"Maryland is dedicated to showcasing equestrian events," says Hasseltine, "and our state has been hosting the best of the best."
To learn more about the Fair Hill Special Event Zone and the Show Place Arena, as well as the multiple other opportunities for sports tourism in Maryland, visit marylandsports.us.