By T. D. Thornton
Sagamore Racing, the Maryland-based breeding and racing operation founded 14 years ago by Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank, is getting out of the sport. Its horses have been in the gradual process of being sold off, and the historic 530-acre Sagamore Farm in Glyndon will transition into supplying rye, corn and limestone-filtered spring water to support a Plank-backed whiskey distillery.
Sagamore led all breeders of Maryland-breds by earnings in 2019, and at its peak during Plank's tenure the farm housed 100 horses. The news comes 10 years to the date that Sagamore Racing color bearer Shared Account upset the GI Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at 46-1, which marked the first elite-level win for the stable.
The Baltimore Sun and WBAL radio both broke the story around the same time on the morning of Nov. 5.
Plank told the Sun that his decision to exit the Thoroughbred business is not related to Under Armour's woes in the athletic apparel sector. Shares in the company's stock have plummeted nearly 70% in value over the last five years. In a Nov. 3 article, the financial news outlet Motley Fool attributed the decline to “executive shake-ups, brand missteps, and an extremely difficult competitive environment.”
Plank was upbeat about his new venture in his WBAL radio interview, saying he was cognizant that he has a duty of stewardship to protect the farm in the heart of Maryland's horse country that formerly stabled Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr.'s breeding and racing operation between 1933 and 1986.
“I'm a revolution guy, not an evolution guy, and [I believe in] being intentional in what you're doing,” Plank told WBAL. “And [when we] started looking at what we can do with racing, I said, 'We're either 100% behind it and we're going to go make it win, or you're not. So that's what we just looked at, the racing aspect of the operation, and said, 'It's time for us to move.'
“Horse racing, it is a terrific sport, and it's a passion; a labor of love,” Plank continued. “And now I get to move this and transition into a passion and labor where I think we're going to make the world's most famous rye whiskey.”
Sagamore Racing will attempt to go out on a high note when it sends out Global Campaign (Curlin) in Saturday's GI Breeders' Cup Classic. The six-for-nine colt is 20-1 on the morning-line coming off a wire-to-wire win in the GI Whitney S. at Saratoga Sept. 5.
“How about the serendipity of the bookends between Shared Account [and Global Campaign]?” Planks asked rhetorically in his WBAL interview. Back when Shared Account won, Plank said, “we were just a couple of years into horse racing. I didn't even know how big of a deal winning the Breeders' Cup was at the time.”
Plank continued: “It brings in an old Under Armour saying that I've used, which is, 'We were always smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what we couldn't accomplish.' And so it felt like that first victory for the Breeders' Cup was like, 'Yeah, every farm does this every year, don't ya?' So to be here 10 years later, and to be at the Breeders' Cup and be in the Classic of all things, [we know] Global Campaign will be longer odds than most of them. But there's a reason that horse is in the race and he's got a shot.”
Sagamore Farm was bequeathed to Vanderbilt by his mother for his 21st birthday in 1933. Vanderbilt would go on to become the owner and president of Pimlico Race Course while serving at various times as head of the New York Racing Association and The Jockey Club. Over the decades, Sagamore was home to three eventual Hall of Fame horses, most notably the 21-for-22 Native Dancer, who won both the 1953 Preakness and Belmont S. The Queen of England even kept a broodmare on the property during its heyday.
Vanderbilt sold the farm to a developer in 1986 and it eventually sunk into disrepair. Plank purchased it in 2007, and in 2011 he told the New York Times that he had a 20-year plan in place to grow the stable while championing Maryland racing and breeding.
“Buying the first string of horses in 2006 and then [having the] privilege to call Sagamore Farm home for the last 14 years [has] been an amazing journey that we've had of being in the racing business,” Plank told WBAL. “There's just so many great memories here. But like many things, it's time for us to turn the page right now, and to start a new chapter out here in Sagamore Farm. And so that 14-year run we had is something that we're super proud of, and we'll always love it. The trophies will live on.”
Plank said his plan is to keep Sagamore Farm open to the public as a “community asset,” with the distillery hosting public tours. Native Dancer's gravesite on the property is expected to remain intact, and a small number of retired Thoroughbreds will remain on the farm as pasture horses, according to WBAL.