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.