On an early summer morning, the mile-long track at Fair Hill Training Center is a hive of equine motion at a walk, trot, canter or gallop. Dozens of thoroughbreds and exercise riders make their way up the long, gentle rise from their barns to go through their planned activities. Then they’ll return to their stables to be cooled down, washed and generally fussed over before retiring to their stalls for the afternoon.
For all the activity, it’s a largely placid scene, with the action spread across a few acres of track and tree-lined surroundings in the Maryland countryside west of Newark, Delaware. The only substantial sounds are those of the horses on the track—the rhythmic marriage of hard breathing and staccato hoof beats. All conversations between their trainers are private, the words dissipating into the vastness of the setting.
On this summer morning, the sun has already put in a brief appearance before receding into the humidity of a glowing mist as the clock hits 6:30 a.m. The horses enter and exit near the head of the stretch of carefully groomed dirt track, or diagonally opposite near the top of the backstretch, their paths depending on where their barns are located. A third entrance is through a tunnel under the dirt track that leads to the 7/8-mile Tapeta track, which is tightly embraced inside the larger circuit.
“Compared to the stables available at the racetracks, the barns here are like heaven.”
—Training center manager Sally Goswell
At the head of the backstretch and off to the side, a four-horse starting gate serves as a training ground for younger horses to learn to enter and exit the gate (an exercise in etiquette and socialization) before running their first races. Near the finish line, Michael Trombetta and Michael Matz exchange pleasantries and occasional words with their exercise riders as they pass by the rail. The two veteran trainers are no strangers to the winner’s circle.
On this morning, time passes at a leisurely gait. By the end of the week, about 65 of the almost 400 horses stalled for at least part of the season in Fair Hill’s 18 privately owned barns will have run a race at one of six regional tracks. Among them they’ll bring in a total of $677,320, charting 15 wins, seven places and seven shows. Inside the trackside clocker tower located at the finish line, Vicky Battaglini keeps watch, walkie-talkie in hand, surveying the track as hawkishly as a mom at an urban playground. Normally, Battaglini doesn’t actually clock the horses. She mainly watches to see if a horse or rider is down. If that happens, she immediately stops the action and alerts the vets and medics if necessary.
She’ll also serve commentary on what’s happening to the handful of people seated on the tower’s wooden benches—visitors, trainers, family members of track employees. “There are three of Grahm Motion’s two-year-olds learning on the track,” she notes, as a bay bracketed by two chestnuts gallops past.
Fair Hill is generally seen as one of best equine centers in the country, with a host of amenities inducing trainers to wait as long as possible before transporting their thoroughbreds to the racetrack. Among them is a fully staffed on-site equine medical facility and therapy center, in addition to gate-training capability.
Work at Fair Hill starts around 2:30 a.m., when the first grooming of the track by two harrow-pulling tractors takes place. “We open up the track to the horses and riders at 6 a.m.,” Battaglini says.
Trainers determine which horses will do what training or exercise. Those who are away or haven’t yet arrived at the center may have an assistant trainer oversee the action and report how things went. “Then we stop things at 7:30 to groom the track again,” she says.
At about the same time the track is being groomed, Sally Goswell arrives for the day’s work. A slightly built woman with shoulder-length hair and a fully engaged manner, Goswell is the manager of the training center, a task she’s had since moving here in 1994 from Pimlico, where she and her husband trained horses. The training center is in its 30th year of a 90-year lease with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It’s situated within the grounds of the Fair Hill Nature and Environment Center, a sprawling countryside of fields and woods that once belonged to the du Ponts and other industrial and business barons.
As she drives around the training center, Goswell explains that it operates as a form of condominium association—one that went through some harrowing days years ago when the barns could’ve been sold for a dollar each (had anyone been interested). But that was then.
Today, Fair Hill is generally seen as one of best equine centers in the country, with a host of amenities inducing trainers to wait as long as possible before transporting their thoroughbreds to the racetrack. Among them is a fully staffed on-site equine medical facility and therapy center, in addition to the gate-training capability. Although most of the trainers race their horses on flat tracks, Fair Hill also is home to trainers whose horses run steeplechases. “The owners are responsible for the maintenance of their facility,” Goswell says, pointing out that some may rent out a portion of their stables to other trainers. “Although we have a maintenance staff, the trainers also hire their own staff,” she says, which normally includes exercise riders, walkers and stable crews. “But we do provide for an outside manure-collection service,” Goswell says. “Compared to the stables available at the racetracks, the barns here are like heaven.”
Matz’ ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, was stabled here and “never saw a racetrack before starting his first race,” Goswell says.
Goswell pulls her SUV in front of a barn marked “Fairy Chant III,” gets out and ducks under a wooden beam posted across an entryway. “Is Keri here?” she asks a barn worker.
Casually seated on the dirt floor of the barn, her back propped against an interior wall, Keri Brion is one of the bright new stars among the constellation of Fair Hill trainers. She trains both thoroughbreds that run at the tracks and jumpers entered in steeplechases. After 11 seasons as assistant trainer with Jonathan Shepard and as a sometime jockey, Brion trained two horses nominated for the Eclipse steeplechase award. Her horse, the Mean Queen, won it. Brion herself was named the leading trainer after securing a quarter of a million in purses. Horses she trained won all but one of the 2021 Grade 1 steeplechase races.
Brion now trains about 55–60 horses, 34 in the barn she rents. Working for several primary owners, including a couple of syndicates, she keeps two assistant trainers busy and has 20 employees in total. “About 30 percent of the horses race on the flat, and the other 70 percent are jumpers—and some do both,” Brion says.
Brion hopes to soon win enough thoroughbred races to have stakes owners give her the same quality of horse steeplechase owners currently do. She protests the suggestion that she might be overworked, even though she makes most decisions and emails the owners as to which horse will run in which race. She also selects horses for her owners in Ireland and trained a few who never won there to get their noses across the wire first here. Brion also attends all the races for the jumpers. “At the end of the day, I write down a list of what needs to be done the next day,” she says.
In fact, Brion could have a job as brand ambassador for Goswell and Fair Hill. “There’s not a better place to train horses in America,” she says. “Everything a trainer could want is here.”
Find another condo association that can make that claim.
Related: Fashions You Need for the Races Around the Brandywine Valley