By Liz Clarke

Not far from traffic-choked I-795 and a few turns past dueling strip malls, Tufton Avenue opens onto 530 acres of serenity. Fourteen miles of white fencing border emerald pastures, and white, red-roofed barns glisten like a wet coat of paint.

Here, on the grounds of Sagamore Farm, lie the remains of one of horse racing’s great champions, Native Dancer, who was buried in full (rather than simply his head, hooves and heart, as is common), along with his blanket, halter and a bag of treats.

Such was the love that Alfred G. Vanderbilt II had for his prized racehorses. And such was the attention to detail at Sagamore Farm, which was owned by the heir to one of the Gilded Age’s vast fortunes from 1933, when Vanderbilt’s mother presented the property as a 21st birthday gift, until 1986, when he sold it to a developer.

After falling into disrepair in the two decades that followed, the property has been given new life by a present-day titan of industry, Kevin Plank, the 38-year-old founder and CEO of Under Armour.

Four years after buying Sagamore Farm, Plank, a former Maryland football player and current university trustee, is proving more than a dilettante in the horse business. In November, he won the Breeders’ Cup $2 million Filly and Mare Turf race with Shared Account, a 46-1 shot trained by Graham Motion, who also trained this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.

The filly’s upset offered the first hint that Plank’s bold vision for Sagamore Farm: to win the Triple Crown, a feat not achieved since 1978, and, in the process, revive Maryland’s downtrodden horse racing industry, which has been singing its own funeral dirge for years — may not be as improbable as it seems.

“Why not us?” Plank asked in a recent interview. “Who’s going to tell us we can’t?”

Plank already has achieved the preposterous by putting a dent in Nike’s market share through the upstart sports apparel company he launched in 1996 with $17,000 from a campus flower-delivery business.

And Maryland’s tradition-steeped horse racing industry, which could easily dismiss his pursuit as a millionaire’s passing fancy, is rooting fervently for him to succeed in its arena, as well.
“It’s the strength of the pack that makes an industry vibrant,” said Michael Pons, third-generation owner of Country Life Farm in Fallston, whose grandfather Adolphe sold Vanderbilt the grand-sire of Native Dancer nearly 80 years ago. “We need new investment in this game and someone at a high level to do it. And here’s the guy with the wherewithal.”

Protecting a tradition

Plank was drawn to racing industry five years ago by corporate self-interest and home-state pride.
The catalyst was the tenuous state of the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, whose future at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course was threatened by the industry’s sagging fortunes in Maryland after neighboring states moved more quickly to adopt slot machines.

The prospect of losing the race alarmed Plank, who considers the third Saturday in May, Preakness Day, as the most significant day of the year for Baltimore to market itself to the nation and world.

“For people to say the Preakness would go away and that was okay — the indifference people had toward that, to me, was shocking,” Plank said. “It was that very issue that drew me to racing and drew me to getting into this business to start with—more a love of this state and love of Maryland than it was, ‘I really love thoroughbred horses.’ Racing as a component of the state of Maryland is so important. And once you get a taste of this business — you get a taste of these athletes — you just fall in love with the whole thing.”

Plank’s first step was hiring Tom Mullikin, a former classmate at Washington’s St. John’s College High School who had quit a corporate job a few years earlier to work at a Kentucky thoroughbred farm, to help locate a suitable property. Rather than start modestly with a 100-acre farm, as planned, Plank fell hard for Sagamore, smitten by its heritage and beauty, and bought the 430-acre property in 2007.

He has since bought an adjoining 100 acres that includes a 10,000-square foot manor overlooking the farm and Worthington Valley, which hosts Under Armour corporate retreats and occasional guests.  From day one, Plank charted a 20-year plan to return Sagamore to prominence. That’s precisely how long it took Vanderbilt to produce his horse of a lifetime, Native Dancer, after dropping out of Yale in 1933 to devote himself to thoroughbred racing.

A large, handsome gray horse who loved thundering from the back of the pack, Native Dancer won 21 of his 22 career races, edged by a head in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Along the way, he became the sport’s first TV star (his dappled coat easy to spot on black-and-white television) and graced the cover of Time magazine.

Plank, of course, knew little about thoroughbreds when he plunged in. A native of Kensington, he can no more shoe a horse than Joe Gibbs can tune a NASCAR engine.

But his business model is much like that which delivered three NASCAR championships to the NFL Hall of Fame coach. And it’s the same approach Plank took in building Under Armour, which boasts revenues approaching $1.4 billion.

“The formula we have at Under Armour is absolutely being replayed here,” Plank said during an interview at the farm. “Find the best team of people that you can, empower them, give them a budget, give them authority, hold them accountable and let them run and be excellent.”

‘A culture of winning’

No one idles at Sagamore Farm, save the occasional slumbering horse. With 21 2-year-olds, seven yearlings, nine broodmares and the tally of babies changing throughout spring, the grooms, exercise riders, visiting farrier and Mullikin are in constant motion, mucking the stalls, replacing beds of straw, preparing buckets of oats, walking horses from barns to paddocks, monitoring newborns and slipping blankets on at night.

The two main barns were renovated the previous year. Their second-story haylofts were replaced with skylights, each stall’s rear window was replaced with a large door and new flooring was installed. The idea, explains Mullikin, the farm’s general manager, is that natural light and better ventilation make a healthier barn.

Thirty days out from a due date, the mares are brought into the foaling barn, which is like a high-tech, large-scale maternity ward. In one stall a horse born five days earlier sleeps on a fluffy bed of straw beside his mother. Mullikin stepped inside to check on the foal. He wobbles to its feet, teetering on impossibly long longs.

In a paddock nearby, four yearlings run in formation, heads high, then trot to a fence to inspect a visitor, as gentle and inquisitive as a Labrador retriever puppy.

Plank is adamant that Sagamore’s grounds are manicured, its barns pristine and its employees well dressed (issued burgundy shirts and khaki pants that are laundered for them), courteous and on-task.

The idea is to set a standard, craft an identity and, ultimately, build a brand.

“Whether Ray Lewis plays for the Baltimore Ravens, whether Chris Cooley plays for the Washington Redskins — people are Ravens or Redskins fans, and they want to root for their team,” Plank said.  “What I’d like to build in Sagamore is as much of a brand as what we have built in Under Armour. People trust Under Armour. I go and buy an Under Armour shirt because it’s the best shirt in the world; and I root for a Sagamore horse because I know that a culture of winning exists.”

Saturday at Pimlico, Humble and Hungry, a Sagamore bay colt named for Plank’s self-styled business ethic and trained by Ignacio Correas IV, will run in the James W. Murphy Stakes at 12:53 p.m. Later that afternoon, Shared Account, the filly trained by Motion that Plank hopes will produce a Preakness winner one day, runs in the Gallorette Handicap.

But five years from now, Plank envisions having a horse in the Preakness Stakes. “We want to run in the races that matter,” he said. “And I want people to recognize our silks and take pride when they see our silks run.”

Tim Capps, a scholar in the Equine Program at the University of Louisville’s College of Business and a former executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, has enjoyed watching the run-up.

“You’re always fascinated when a young, successful entrepreneur gets into the business,” Capps said. “There are a lot of people in Maryland racing who have waited for years to see somebody who is committed buy Sagamore because it’s a legacy farm, one of the shining pieces of Maryland breeding. People are watching what he’s doing with their fingers crossed, hoping he’ll succeed.”

Adds Pons, the third-generation Maryland breeder: “If [Plank] said he was going to do this next year, it would be laughable. But 20 years? He has a shot. But he’ll have to have patience. This is a race not to the swift, but to the persevering.”