By John Eisenberg
Many of Kevin Plank’s dreams have already come true, but the former Maryland Terrapins linebacker, who founded Under Armour and turned it into a billion-dollar sports apparel empire, readily admits to lusting after one of the biggest items on his still-to-do list — owning a “hometown horse” that captures the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown at Pimlico.
“When was the last time that happened, a Maryland horse winning the Preakness?” he suddenly asked during a recent interview at Sagamore Farm, the historic Worthington Valley property that Alfred Vanderbilt once owned and Plank has purchased and restored as a base for his growing racing stable.
Told the feat last occurred in 1983, when Harford County horseman Bill Boniface won the Preakness with Deputed Testamony, Plank sighed, smiled and said, “Imagine that … having a Maryland horse do that and be on the national stage going into the Belmont. Aw, man, that would be great.”
But just as quickly as Plank seemed to lose himself in the dream, he snapped out of his reverie and made it clear he has even greater goals for his Sagamore Farm racing stable.
“I love the great local stories,” Plank said. “I love the great regional stories, too. But I want Maryland to be in the national (horse racing) conversation. That’s why I almost want to validate what we’re doing with, ‘Let’s win the Kentucky Derby.’ And then let’s win the Preakness, too.”
Plank, 38, is four years into his long-range plan to build a racing franchise that is strongly identified with Maryland and competes and wins at the highest level of the Sports of Kings. To say he is progressing would be an understatement. Consider what Plank’s Sagamore stock has accomplished during the past year alone:
• In a remarkable achievement, his filly Shared Account won the Breeders’ Cup Fillies and Mares Turf race last fall, the stunning victory at 46-1 odds effectively announcing and validating Plank’s endeavor to the sports world.
• His 3-year-old colt Monzon, winner of three of seven starts, captured the Count Fleet Stakes in New York last winter and competed in the Belmont Stakes on June 11. It was Plank’s first entry in a Triple Crown race.
• On Preakness weekend this year, a Sagamore filly, All Mettle, won a race on Friday, and on Saturday Shared Account ran fourth as the favorite in the Gallorette Stakes (conceding 10 pounds to the field), and a 3-year-old colt named Humble and Hungry ran second in the James Murphy Stakes. Named in honor of Plank’s guiding business principles, Humble and Hungry ran in a Breeders’ Cup race last fall.
“Shared Account winning that Breeders’ Cup race gave us a taste of where we want to go,” said Tom Mullikin, a high school classmate of Plank’s who has been general manager of the farm and racing stable since their inception. “For that to happen within three years (of starting) was astounding. There have been (major) owners and connections who have been hammering away at this for 20, 30 years (without such success).”
“We’re thrilled with what has transpired,” said Bob Feld, a California bloodstock agent who handles Plank’s purchases at equine auctions. “A lot of credit goes to Kevin. He’s just one of those guys who can make things happen. The team he has assembled is of high quality, but his mindset of willing things to happen, that’s part of it, too. He’s a winner, and that transcends not only Under Armour, but Sagamore. His comment after winning the Breeders’ Cup was, ‘Winning begets winning,’ and that pretty much sums up his approach.”
Making any inroads in racing can be a daunting challenge. The sport is expensive, intensely competitive and characterized by failure more than success.
“It’s kind of like baseball, where if you make an out seven out of 10 times, you go to Cooperstown,” Mullikin said. “Racing is even tougher. Two (wins) out of 10 (starts for a stable) is good. You have to learn to be patient.”
Some insiders surely rolled their eyes when Plank stated from the outset that his goal was to win the Triple Crown, the greatest feat in American racing, which has been attained just 11 times since 1935 and not once since 1978. While being supportive of their boss’s dreams, Mullikin and the rest of the Sagamore team had to tutor him gently in the sport’s enduring challenges.
Plank quickly understood it might take years to build Sagamore into precisely what he wanted, but he never changed his dreams or goals. Racing might be a tough mountain to climb, he said, but few people thought a small Maryland-based athletic wear company founded in 1995 could end up rivaling larger, more established Nike, and Plank pulled that off.
“I’m very public about being naïve enough not to know what can’t be accomplished,” Plank said. “That’s what happened with Under Armour, and to be honest, I approach everything in life with that mentality.
“When you walk around (the farm) here, our mission is to win the Triple Crown. And that comment is not followed by a chuckle or an eye-roll, like, ‘Maybe that will happen.’ Our facilities are second to none. Our history is second to none. The pedigrees that we’re going to put around here are second to none to date.
“We’re going to build, continue to multiply our odds. I got into this because we’d like to run in the big races. I want Maryland to run in the big races, and I want Sagamore to be a symbol of that for the whole state.”
A native of Silver Spring and unabashed booster of his home state, Plank is careful to point out that while he wants Maryland to be represented on the national racing scene, he isn’t doing it to try to save the state’s struggling horse-racing industry. Political difficulties and years of infighting have staggered Maryland’s once-proud industry, and Plank doesn’t pretend to have the political wiles or patience to solve the myriad problems.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the time,” he said. “The vision of Sagamore Farm is for it to be a self-contained farm where we breed the horses, raise them, train them and race them. That’s not to say everything we do is self-contained. But I think it is significant that the first thing we did when we bought the farm was put up the (new) perimeter fencing, because a lot of the negative energy around racing today was something we didn’t want entering the farm.
“We want to go with can-do people who say, ‘Why can’t this happen in Maryland?’ Too many conversations in Maryland start with, ‘Why you can’t do something?’ I’m not very good with that kind of talk, so we’ll concentrate on what we can control ourselves.”
A casual racing fan until five years ago, Plank was drawn in by the seemingly annual debate about the Preakness possibly leaving Maryland. Thinking he could generate positive racing news to change the conversation — and also looking for a new mountain to climb — he hired Mullikin, who had left a corporate job in Washington to work in Kentucky for a commercial horse breeder, and purchased Sagamore, the iconic property where Vanderbilt-bred equine champions such as Native Dancer once roamed.
The first phase of his plan focused on renovating Sagamore, which had fallen on hard times with prior owners. Four years and millions of dollars later, Sagamore is again a jewel featuring state-of-the art barns and a three-quarter-mile training track composed partially of recycled Under Armour apparel. Plank has also purchased an adjoining property with a manor house that Under Armour uses for corporate events.
Approaching the farm by car, a driver comes over the crest of a hill and looks down on Sagamore’s 500 acres of paddocks, fields, shimmering white fencing and red-topped buildings — clearly a special place.
“We’ve received great feedback from throughout the industry for what we’ve done with the farm,” Mullikin said. “It’s nice to have your hard work recognized.”
Plank’s racing team started buying and breeding horses while the farm was being renovated, slowly bringing the racing side of the operation to life. Today, there are eight broodmares on the farm, more than a half-dozen horses in the midst of racing careers and several generations of growing youngsters waiting for their turns to run.
“Ultimately, I foresee us having 20 to 30 mares and a stable of 20 to 25 horses in training,” Mullikin said.
The goal, Plank said, is to have “eight to 10 live bullets” to fire at the Triple Crown every year.
While certainly substantial, that is not a large-scale operation along the lines of, say, Godolphin, owned by Dubai’s ruling family, which can send more than 100 horses to the races during a year.
“Kevin has resources, but that’s not the way we’re going to go about it,” Mullikin said. “We can’t play with the big boys. We’re going to go with quality over quantity.”
Bob Feld, the bloodstock agent, approves wholeheartedly.
“The best thing about Kevin and his approach is that he doesn’t want to be a flash in the pan,” Feld said. “This business has been ripe for people to come in with a lot of money and a lot of bravado, beating their chests, saying they’re going to do this and that, and as quickly as they come in, they’re out.
“His approach is much more methodical, much more careful. He more or less said it was a 20-year program when he started. We’re in the fourth or fifth year. That’s a refreshing approach. We all want results like anyone else, but it takes a little pressure off.”
Most of Plank’s horses live and train right on the farm under Ignacio Correas, a veteran horseman from Argentina who serves as Sagamore’s private trainer. A few are given to other trainers, such as Shared Account, who is conditioned by Graham Motion, the well-respected Marylander who operates a barn at the bucolic Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. He won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom.
The Sagamore blueprint calls for giving its animals a comfortable life in a rural setting, allowing them to romp in fields instead of being stabled at tracks and cooped up in stalls. When they approach racing age, they’re sent to Pimlico for a few weeks to learn about life away from the farm.
“This is a county club (at the farm),” Mullikin said. “We have to get them down to the city to hear some ambulances and give them some street cred; let them see what track life is about.”
Their blueprint received the ultimate validation long before anyone expected when Shared Account won her Breeders’ Cup race last fall. Given little shot by bettors, she benefited from a classic ride by Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado, who waited patiently on the rail until the top of the stretch and squeezed between horses to take the lead. But it was up to the horse to outlast a pair of challengers in a thrilling duel, and she stubbornly refused to give in, crossing the finish line in front by a nose.
When ESPN quickly cut to the traditional shot of the winning owner’s box, the camera captured a wild celebration.
“We were jumping out of our skins,” Plank said, smiling broadly at the memory. “They were lucky I didn’t take off my shirt and run across the finish line myself.”
Plank conceded that the Breeders’ Cup victory was a game-changer in that it validated the work he had been doing. But asked whether Shared Account’s triumph was a surprise, he said:
“We expected her to win. Why wouldn’t she win? Why did we show up? We didn’t come expecting to finish second or third. Hopefully she feels that, and hopefully the farm feels that way.
“We’re going to be very methodical, extremely deliberate, and we’re going to apply a formula that, when done the right way, will give us great results. So was the Breeders’ Cup a surprise? No, it was one of the intended victories that are going to happen. We don’t know when they’re going to happen, but they will.”
Photos by Sabina Moran/PressBox
Issue 162: June 2011