Come Preakness day, many fans at Pimlico Race Course may crane their necks to peer beyond the fence of Under Armour's infield hospitality tent, where celebrities attract at least as much attention as the thoroughbreds on the track.
The fast-growing Under Armour, a Baltimore-based sports apparel and footwear brand, and its ambitious founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, have embraced the Preakness, the city's largest, splashiest sporting event and the middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown. The two brands have become increasingly entwined.
Call it the Under Armour-ization of the Preakness.
Plank will cheer on as many as five horses on the Preakness undercard from Sagamore Racing, his breeding and training operation that aspires to raise a Triple Crown winner. The company's big hospitality tent features a large Under Armour logo emblazoned on its roof. Trainers' gift bags feature Under Armour jackets embroidered with the Preakness logo. Sagamore Racing is sponsoring one of the races Friday, the day before the main event.
"It's good for everybody," said Bob Leffler, whose advertising agency represents the Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees Pimlico, home of the Preakness, and also runs Laurel Park.
With the participation of Under Armour and others, the Preakness has attracted "well over $2 million in corporate sponsorship," said Sal Sinatra, the Jockey Club's general manager.
If the event permitted more sponsors, he added, "there wouldn't be room for the fans."
Under Armour, with more than $3 billion in sales, has turned the Preakness into an extended weekend for clients, celebrities and other guests, showcasing the company and, by extension, Baltimore.
"Somebody has got to love Baltimore, especially now after what happened," said Leffler, referring to rioting last month after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody.
As an entertainment venue, the event is perfect because of its size, Leffler said. "You'd have to buy the whole upper deck at M&T Bank Stadium at a football game to entertain all those people," he said.
Plank hosts a party Friday night and offers VIP tours of Sagamore Farm, the bucolic Baltimore County site purchased by Plank in 2007 that was once home to hundreds of horses owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt II. The celebrated thoroughbred Native Dancer, winner of the 1953 Preakness, was based at Sagamore Farm, and a modest headstone there marks his grave.
"You can tell how much he loves the Preakness," Sinatra said of Plank. "He wants to be part of it."
The weekend events, focused on the catered affair at the Saturday races, have included hot-air balloon rides and mechanical bulls.
"It's a great opportunity to highlight Baltimore and Maryland, and frankly to change people's perceptions of the city," said Under Armour in a statement in response to queries about its expanding relationship with the race. The company said guests "are blown away" by the event and "surprised to find a place as beautiful as Sagamore Farm here. Guests also experience downtown and the UA campus."
Under Armour won't say who is on the VIP guest list for Saturday's races, replying only that the star power will be similar to previous years.
Nor would Plank aides estimate the size of the investments in the Preakness through his various business entities.
"I know that [Under Armour's] investment is very significant," said Tom Geddes, managing partner of Plank Industries, which handles Plank's private investments.
Besides heading Under Armour, Plank has a development firm that is turning the Recreation Pier in Fells Point into a 128-room hotel and has acquired much of the land in Port Covington, including The Baltimore Sun's printing plant property, where it plans to develop a mixed-use project with Under Armour offices and a Plank-owned whiskey distillery.
Plank recently expanded his relationship with Preakness weekend when Sagamore Racing became the named sponsor of Friday's Pimlico Special after committing $30,000 to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which seeks placement for retired thoroughbreds. The race for 3-year-olds has attracted Seabiscuit, Cigar, War Admiral and Real Quiet, among other big names.
The Preakness is a natural for Under Armour because it commands international attention and is based in the company's hometown.
"The key to Under Armour's future success is expansion outside the U.S., and generating familiarity with the brand on a global scale is a very expensive thing to do," said Auburn Bell, an affiliate professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland. "There are very few iconic sports venues where you can achieve that — the Olympics, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, and I would put the Preakness in that fold."
Plank's interest in Sagamore and the Preakness also derives from his belief that the fortunes of the region and Under Armour are intertwined. The rapidly growing company is continually recruiting new talent to relocate to Baltimore.
"What brought me into Sagamore was not a massive passion for racing when I first began," he said in March, before the riots made the city's public relations challenges more daunting. "It was a recognition of the fact that there is this one event that the state of Maryland has every year. Tell me the days when the country, if not the entire world, looks at the state of Maryland and says what's happening here? It's the Preakness."
Plank hopes Sagamore will place its imprint on the region as the Ravens and the Orioles have. He said he wants Sagamore Racing "to be Baltimore's third sports franchise."
"That's the tricky part," said Tom Mullikin, Sagamore Farm's general manager. "Look at Alfred Vanderbilt, he never won the Derby. Going back to Mother Nature and dealing with horses, you never know. You can't write a check big enough to ensure your spot. I guess you could go out and write a check for $30 million for [Kentucky Derby winner] American Pharoah this week, but some things aren't for sale. You put your head down and you keep working hard."
Sagamore supplements its homebred horses through partnerships with other owners.
Sagamore had Triple Crown hopes for The Gomper, purchased this year, but the 3-year-old came up short. Another partnership yielded Happy My Way, which won the Maryland Sprint Handicap in 2014 and is entered in the race again Saturday as part of the Preakness undercard.
"It's a way to diversify our portfolio," Mullikin said. "It's like the Orioles. They have their farm system, but they go out and buy free agents."