By Britney Grover
In September, Fair Hill Thoroughbred Show celebrated its 10th show—and a return from the COVID-19 pandemic cancellation last year. What began as a celebration of Thoroughbreds, held each year at the Fair Hill Training Center racetrack in Elkton, Maryland, has become not just a beloved hunter and jumper show but a strong proponent for Thoroughbreds—and their riders.
“Many, many people have told us that this is their favorite horse show of the year, which I think is pretty special,” said Lisa Demars, Fair Hill Thoroughbred Show (FHTS) president. “They’ve told us how much they appreciate the fact that we keep our entry fees really low, so they can compete in a number of classes. That’s a real stumbling block for some people, and one of the things we try to do is make it possible for people to gain a lot of really good experience in one or two days. What we want is when they go off to non-Thoroughbred-only shows, they and their horse are good ambassadors for the breed.”
Keeping showing costs low for Thoroughbred riders is just one way Lisa and the other dedicated volunteers for the 501(c)(3) FHTS encourage and incentivize Thoroughbred riding—which is why many of them are volunteers in the first place. Volunteers include Paget Bennet, head of the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic auction house; Rick and Dixie Abbot, retired owners of Charlton Bloodstock; exercise riders, racehorse owners, breeding farm workers, sport horse riders and more. “A wide variety, but all with a strong Thoroughbred association,” Lisa said. “I think they love the horses. They want to see them thrive when they come off the racetrack, and this is their way of helping.”
A Special Show
Lisa’s own relationship with Thoroughbreds began when she was young—as soon as she was out of the “up-down league” in the ’70s. “Thoroughbreds were the horses that you rode—that’s what there was,” she recalled. “Hunter shows were my first love. That’s what I’ve done most of my life, and most of the time it’s been on Thoroughbreds.”
Over the years, warmbloods became popular on the show circuits and demand for Thoroughbreds as sporthorses declined. But many were still passionate about the breed, including those involved in the racing industry like racehorse trainer Liz Merryman.
Liz had attended an all-Thoroughbred horse show with her daughter and loved it—but regretted how far away it was. In mentioning her feelings to Penny Woolley, Liz sparked the idea to hold a show and general celebration of Thoroughbred horses at Fair Hill Training Center—home base of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, and Animal Kingdom, who won the Derby in 2011, just months before the inaugural FHTS event.
FHTS began as part show and part educational fair promoting Thoroughbreds. Lisa attended the first year with her neighbors; she volunteered the second. “The third year, the person who had been president of the show decided to step down, and things were sort of floundering,” Lisa said. “Someone said, ‘You should do it.’ So I just said, ‘OK.’ I thought it was a great show, and I didn’t want to see it go by the wayside.”
With Lisa’s many years of experience in the hunter ring, FHTS evolved into a two-day show with a day of hunters and a day of jumpers. Horses don’t have to have come from the racetrack, but most have—and one of Lisa’s favorite things to do regarding the show is put together a biography pamphlet to distribute at the show. “I have a lot of fun with it, and I enjoy the stories people tell about their horses—and how they feel about their horses, which I think is really special,” she said.
Paying it Forward
At FHTS, that bond is celebrated and encouraged even beyond low entry fees and generous prize money. “The concept of our show is to be on the side of the riders—I think it shows and I think it’s really appreciated,” Lisa said. “We do everything that we can to make the horse show itself a pleasant and welcoming experience for both the rider and the horse. Little things, like if a horse is refusing a jump, we’ll go and lower it—like they used to do in the old days. You may not win a ribbon, but your horse will learn to jump the jump.”
With between 135 and 150 horse-and-rider combinations who generally compete in several divisions, FHTS classes are large and the days long—but Lisa and her team work hard to make it fun and efficient. Lisa praises the riders, many of whom return year after year, for helping to create the pleasant, supportive atmosphere of the show. One year, a rider experiencing FHTS for the first time was so appreciative of the experience that she asked for the names and addresses of all of the sponsors so that she could write to thank them for supporting the show.
FHTS relies on generous sponsors and donations to cover rising operational expenses so that they can keep entry fees low—and return that money to helping riders. The FHTS scholarship program supports Thoroughbred riders, as do their free clinics—with top industry professionals like five-time Olympic show jumper Anne Kursinski—and they’re looking for even more ways to help.
“I was really excited when somebody came up with the idea of the scholarship program, and I was really excited when somebody came up with the idea of the free clinic, because nobody else does those things, that I’m aware of,” Lisa said. “We’re about due for the next big idea; we’re looking for something really cool we could do that would help riders further their riding goals and the training of their horses.”
Outside of sponsorships and ideas, FHTS’ needs include finding ways to make the show physically easier on the show volunteers, most of whom are over 50. Besides paying judges, the only show employees that are not volunteers are a few young men hired each year to help haul and set up the rented jumps. “We have some younger volunteers, and we’re working on that—they’re a real bonus to the show,” Lisa shared.
Putting on the show may be a lot of hard work, but Lisa and her dedicated fellow volunteers believe it’s worth it—that Thoroughbreds are worth it. “I love horses of any breed. Now I own a couple of warmbloods, as well as some Thoroughbreds, and Thoroughbreds are so much easier to work with—they’re smarter, and they pay more attention. They have a really good work ethic and an amazing level of versatility, and they interact in a much more personal way,” Lisa said. “I’ll just be out in the field, and I have Thoroughbreds that will come up and give me a kiss—for no reason, just because they want to. They’re just wonderful horses.”
For more information, visit fairhillthoroughbredshow.org
Photos by Carly Abbott Photography