Founding Father Print E-mail

Trainer and veterinarian John R.S. Fisher developed the Fair Hill Training Center

Blood-Horse
November, 2008

Moving at a purposeful pace John R. S. Fisher finishes up his daily duties, shadowed by a small, furry canine.

A fluffy-haired Jack Russell, Uncas is named for one of Fisher's favorite characters in the classic book "The Last of the Mohicans." He wriggles under the trainer's chair set up out the back of his barn that offers a striking view of strings of thoroughbreds headed to Fair Hill's training tracks.

"As a puppy he followed me up to the clockers' stand, next thing I know he's sitting alongside me," Fisher recalled. "Uncas doesn't bark or bite, he just hangs out. He has been sort of grand-fathered in by the other horsemen here."

Twenty-five years ago Fisher conceived the idea for the Fair Hill Training Center that straddles the borders of northeast Maryland and Chester County, Pa.

"If I had realized it was going to be as frustrating as it was putting the training center together, I never would have gone down that road," said Fisher, cracking a smile.

"But in the end it turned out great, and that's what really matters. It was always about finding a better place to train a horse."

A former steeplechase trainer, Fisher is one of racing's ordinary folks with those extraordinary dreams. Fisher, 70, is best known for grass horses that can get the distance, but it's been a turf sprinter that has delivered his greatest success.

Smart Enough is one of the nation's premier turf sprinters. He has won 10 times (eight stakes) and finished off the board just once in his 16-start career.

Bred in Kentucky by Eugene "Fitz" Dixon Jr., the 5-year old gelding is out of the Polish Numbers mare Quick 'n' Smart. He has set a remarkable five different course records, three of them coming at the five-furlong distance while amassing $647,543 in lifetime earnings.

In his first race of the year at a rainy Keeneland, Smart Enough finished runner-up in the $125,000 Shakertown Stakes in April. He clipped heels with another horse and a week or so later Fisher discovered a problem with his left front ankle.

The injury was confirmed after speaking with Dr. Dean Richardson during a chance meeting at the Maryland Hunt Cup.

"There was no heat, no pain after the race, but later I noticed a filling," Fisher explained. "Dean said it could lead to a much bigger problem so I sent him to New Bolton for a MRI, then an ultrasound that found a tearing in the soft tissue around the ankle.

The injury sidelined the talented sprinter until early October. In his return Smart Enough finished runner-up to Chamberlain Bridge in the $150,000 Woodford Stakes, a 5 ½-furlong sprint on the turf.

"He got tired, but I knew he would with the small window of workouts he had coming back from the injury," Fisher said. "I think he'll be right from here on out."

Steeplechase roots

The world of horses has deep roots in the Fisher family. His maternal grandfather, John Rush Street, started the Hartford (Md.) Hunt Club and today the family home is the site of the Elkridge-Hartford Hunt Club. On his father's side his uncle Janon bred, owned and trained racehorses and was the master of the of the hunt for the Greensprings Hunt Club in the Worthington Valley.

Fisher grew up in the Worthington Valley that is located southwest of Baltimore. Its rural atmosphere hasn't changed much in 200 years. Celebrated for its famed steeplechase families, the Smithwicks led the way. The leading money-winning trainer a dozen times, Mikey Smithwick was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1971. For Fisher and his pal Fritz Burkhardt, now a steward at Delaware Park, the 1950s were glorious times.

Smithwick stabled his horses at the Elkridge-Hartford Hunt Club. Sparkplug, half thoroughbred and half draft horse, was a notorious foxhunter.

"He was known to take off running and that's the last we'd see him that day," recalled Burkhardt. "Mikey would have owners and trainers show up to look at horses. That was Johnny's and my cue to jump on Sparkplug with only a halter and a shank. We'd flip a coin to see who got the front or back. Then we'd jump him in and out of the paddock fences. Cheap entertainment for Mikey's pals."

"We worked 12 hour days, seven days a week, but we had plenty of fun," Fisher remembered. "I rode a lot of green horses, schooled anything. When I was 17, I started riding in timber races. Mickey was such a superb horseman and a terrific teacher, even though he didn't realize he was teaching us."

After graduating from the Gilman School in Baltimore, Fisher attended Cornell University majoring in pre-veterinarian studies then earned his V. M. D. at the University of Pennsylvania. A year before graduating, Fisher married Dolly O'Donovan, a foxhunter from the Worthington Valley.

"I liked medicine, it was a big challenge," Fisher explained. "I knew I could become a much better horseman by learning everything I could about them."

A mentor in Dr. Wright

Fisher earned a fellowship at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. where he was an instructor in equine pulmonary disease. After a couple of years he got the racetrack itch, and teamed up with a prominent veterinarian at Belmont Park.

"I knew medicine, I didn't know the ways of the racetrack," Fisher recalled. "To me it seemed it was all about marketing your services. There was a horse that hurt his hock very badly in van accident. We were not really treating it and the horse got worse and worse. I suspected there must have been a deal between the trainer and the head vet. Sure enough they put him down at the end of the meet.

"I became very disenchanted. A lot of things going on that I couldn't morally condone. I left the track after three months and never went back."

In the early 1960s Fisher landed a resident vet position with Mrs. Allaire du Pont at her farm in Chesapeake City, Md. Though he never worked with the only five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso.

"I can't take any credit for Kelso's good health, as much as I would like to. Allaire had much more experienced vets. I gave her a lot of advice, though I'm not sure she was listening. We were great friends until the time of her death."

He did come under the wing of legendary veterinarian William Wright.

"We'd meet often for breakfast and chat about racehorses, medicine and life," Fisher related. "I would approach a clinical problem in a set series of steps while Dr. Wright would observe it from a practical horseman's viewpoint. His solution was often different from mine, so it really broadened my outlook on being a veterinarian."

In 1965 Fisher took a position as Director of Research for a feed company in Lancaster, Pa. and he and Dolly bought an old farm in southern Chester County, Pa. He got started as a trainer by dumb luck.

"I borrowed money and bought a un-raced 4-year old stud," Fisher recalled. "First time I got on him he ran off uphill and bled out his nostrils. When I had Dr. Wright gallop him up, naturally, he didn't bleed. He said to me, 'I wouldn't get rid of him, he's quite a nice horse.'"

Long story short, Landing Party turned into a superb timber horse. Fisher piloted the horse to victory in the 1968 Maryland Hunt Cup and the horse won it again in 1971.

"I bought a second horse for a client and Island Stream became another very good steelechase horse," he said. "But after awhile I went into flat racing."

The trainer won his first stakes win at Philadelphia Park in 1976 with the filly Passamaquoddy who was trained at his Gumtree Farm. Fisher decided on a training career in the mid Atlantic states.

"I had some horses racing in New York, but I wanted an enjoyable life with my family rather than chasing after racing's brass ring."

Today, Fisher's son Jack is the 2008 National Steeplechase's leading trainer as Fisher was three previous seasons. He trains the 2007 Eclipse Award winner Goodnight Shirt and rode and trained Saluter, a champion jumper who won the Virginia Gold Cup six consecutive years. An older son Rush is an orthopedic spine surgeon in Wilmington, Del, while daughter Katherine is married, raising three young boys in Chadds Ford, Pa.

Launching Fair Hill

Spurred by an ongoing battle in the early 1980s with the general manager of Philadelphia Park, Fisher followed his dream.

"I was being continually hassled by the racing secretary about running my horses," said Fisher. "There had to be a better way to train."

Originally he approached the New Bolton Center about a training center, but the adjoining property proved to be too expensive. He turned to Fair Hill.

The former foxhunting estate of William du Pont, Fair Hill was being used for a couple of steeplechase race cards and the county fair each year, Fisher, with the help of Maryland attorney John Clark, negotiated a 98-year lease on the 350 acres with the State in 1982. Early barn owners included Fisher, racehorse owner George Strawbridge, Jr. and Gene Weymouth, who still trains at Fair Hill.

A lack of new investors stalled the training center's progress. Additional barns and a much-needed dirt track were put on hold. Still, its all-weather, wood chip track was a winner, and Fair Hill earned a reputation for turning out quality turf runners.

Fasig-Tipton stepped up and managed the Fair Hill project in 1985 with grand plans that included more barns, a veterinary hospital and sales pavilion.

"They helped saved Fair Hill, but ran into the same problems we did: lack of facilities, more investors," Fisher explained. "By then the bottom had fallen out of the thoroughbred market, so the barns weren't selling. There weren't enough horses to make it economically viable."

Mike and Sally Goswell were early pioneers. He trained, while she helped out in the barn. They sold their barn in 1996 and now Sally is the training center manager while Mike oversees morning workouts and the starting gate at the track.

"It was a vision before it's time," said Sally. "There were some tough times in many different ways. Johnny sank a lot of money into it and it didn't go well for quite awhile. He's had a lot of positive input. He helped us tremendously when we had the herpes virus scare.

"Today, most of the barn owners make their living here. They can control their own destinies and that is the way it should be."

By the mid-1990s Delaware Park's racing was on the upswing thanks to the slots-fueled purses and Arabian racing. Demand for Fair Hill's stalls soared.

"We hit that critical mass of horses to make us economically viable," Fisher explained. "Folks in the industry have always known about us, but thanks to Barbaro the general public discovered us. The last few years we've had horses that have done well in the Derby. Back in the '80s, people would have asked what Derby, the Cecil County Derby?"

Ultimate feeling

It took Fisher three decades to get to Churchill Downs. Once he got under the Twin Spires, it only took him 1:47.90 to earn a trip to the winner's circle in November 2001.

Owned by Eugene "Fitz" Dixon, Dr. Kashnikow flew by the entire field in the stretch to take the River City Handicap. Among a long string of Fisher-trained stakes winners including Quick 'n Smart (Smart Enough's mare) Play Bingo, Ancient Line, Hear the Bell, Futurist, Buying Rain, Brave Note, Short Stay, Isabelle, Scottsville, Sangria and Plenty of Sugar. Royalties and Wilderness Trace have been solid allowance fillies this year.

"Mr. Dixon gave them time and allowed them to run at their best," Fisher related. "The older geldings that won stakes for him, he wouldn't let them slide into the claiming ranks even though he might have made more money. He had me give them away to good homes and they all went on to have marvelous second careers."

Gina McElhinney has been Fisher's assistant at his Fair Hill barn for 20 years.

"Doc Fisher is very patient, if something is wrong he backs off," McElhinney noted. "We have a small barn, but have been able to produce a stakes winner nearly every year."

One race stands out for Fisher-- two-year old Smart Enough's triumph in the Turf Monster at Philadelphia Park shortly after Dixon passed away from cancer.

"One of his best races ever," Fisher recalled. "It was very special since Mr. Dixon was the head of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission for two decades and so instrumental in racing succeeding. It was a very poignant moment for both myself and Mrs. Dixon."

Smart Eough possesses more innate ability then any horse Fisher's ever trained.

"He's very good at six furlongs and devastating at five," Fisher noted. "He'll still have that same speed and dominance over the next two or three years. When I lead him over to the track, he's the horse to beat. I've never had that experience before.

"For a trainer that's the ultimate feeling. Come beat me, if you think you can."

 

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