Kevin Plank wanted to win the Triple Crown.
The Under Armour founder didn’t mind saying so when he launched his thoroughbred racing operation 13 years ago at Sagamore Farm, the Baltimore County landmark that had been home to Native Dancer and other great champions.
Plank envisioned a self-sufficient operation that would breed tough, brilliant runners, train them for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and provide a home for them in retirement. He wanted Baltimore sports fans to root for horses wearing the farm’s three maroon diamonds. He saw the reemergence of the historic farm as a story that could help breathe life into Maryland racing.
Now, he’s ready to put a period on the tale, or at least close this chapter of it.
On Saturday, Sagamore-trained Global Campaign will run in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky. His start, in one of the world’s most prestigious races, will be the last for a horse representing Plank’s Sagamore operation. Training and breeding at the 530-acre farm will cease. Plank plans to keep a few retired horses at the facility he refurbished, but he’ll use the land primarily to grow corn and rye for his Sagamore Spirit whiskey brand.
“We’ve had an amazing run and chapter with the farm; it’s been incredible,” Plank said Wednesday, standing on the balcony of the lavish clocker’s tower overlooking Sagamore’s training track. “But I’m also a believer in revolution more than evolution. If you’re going to make a decision, make it intentional. So the same fervor that got us into horse racing … it’s time for a new chapter out here.”
The move comes as Under Armour, the sports apparel company Plank founded in 1996 and made him a billionaire, has suffered through a run of difficult years marked by its plummeting stock price and an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department into its accounting practices. Plank stepped down as Under Armour’s CEO last year while maintaining roles as executive chairman and brand chief.
But Plank said his decision to shutter the racing operation at Sagamore was not related to Under Armour’s struggles.
“I’m long on Under Armour, which is my No. 1 job,” said Plank, noting the company’s better-than-expected earnings call last week and corresponding stock bump. “The decision to run the farm is a decision which is strategic as to how do we align the resources we have. I wasn’t spending enough time in horse racing, so I think we could find an intentional purpose for the farm as something that makes sense for the balance of the business.”
Though the farm produced its share of winners, including 2010 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf champion Shared Account, Plank did not achieve his Kentucky Derby or Preakness triumph. He began paring back the racing operation last year while keeping about 20 horses in training, led by Global Campaign. He said he was comfortable with Sagamore Racing’s performance but not his own commitment.
“I haven’t been able to put as much time … my input was not matching my output,” Plank said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the racing. It’s just the amount of time I’m able to commit to the sport.”
Sagamore president Hunter Rankin, whom Plank tabbed to overhaul his racing operation in 2015, described the change as “bittersweet.”
“[Kevin] just has a lot of other things going on,” he said Wednesday from Keeneland, where he was awaiting Global Campaign and trainer Stanley Hough. “I’m happy for him, because he’s excited about what the future is for Sagamore, which is what I want for him. I never really worry about it too much because it’s not my call.”
Rankin came to the farm from the Sagamore Development arm of Plank’s companies but has deep roots in the racing culture of his native Kentucky. Finding horses such as Global Campaign, purchased for $250,000 at Keeneland’s yearling sale in September 2017, is his passion.
“We had goals we did not accomplish. We wanted to win the Kentucky Derby. We wanted to win the Preakness,” Rankin said. “We didn’t quite reach those heights, but we gave it our best shot, and as I told Kevin, no matter what, this is the type of horse I always wanted to buy for him.”
Plank does not plan to remove any of the red-roofed barns he restored or alter the ¾-mile training track that’s served as the farm’s centerpiece. He’ll keep riding horses on hand for guests. He grinned, recalling a visit from Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, a longtime Under Armour athlete who could not restrain her competitive instincts during a gallop around the track.
“Lindsey basically started running me into the rail,” he said.
Sagamore Racing has hosted tours and groups of Baltimore-area school children over the years, but Plank said he’d like to think up more ways to bring the public to the farm, which was founded in 1925 by Bromo-Seltzer inventor Isaac Emerson and built to glory by Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr.
At its peak, Sagamore covered almost 1,000 acres and operated as a small village with its own blacksmith shop and staff dormitories. Native Dancer, the “Gray Ghost,” attracted the eyes of the racing world to Baltimore County, winning 21 of 22 career races in the 1950s before retiring to become one of the greatest sires in the history of the breed. The world’s wealthiest horse owners, including Queen Elizabeth II, sent their mares to Sagamore to be impregnated by him. He’s buried in a plot at the serene center of the farm.
Plank wants people to bask in that history.
“I think a lot of the ambition I had getting into the racing business was bringing and delivering pride back to the state of Maryland and the Baltimore City,” he said. “To me, that goal is exactly the same. The farm’s not changing hands. We’re going to repurpose how we use it.”
Ever a lover of grand narratives, Plank hopes to finish his run as an upset winner in one of the nation’s great races. He recently found himself perusing photographs from Shared Account’s victory as a 46-1 longshot in the 2010 Breeders' Cup. He teased his son, now 17, about how cute he looked in those triumphant snapshots.
He considers it “serendipity” that win or lose, Global Campaign will bring an end to this phase of the Sagamore story at the Breeders' Cup.
Once upon a time, Rankin expected Global Campaign to become a Kentucky Derby entrant. But the gifted colt hurt his foot in the 2019 Fountain of Youth Stakes and has struggled with related injuries for much of the last two years. He finally made good on his promise by winning the Grade 1 Woodward Handicap at Saratoga in September. He’s a 20-1 shot in the morning line at the Breeders' Cup Classic, behind more famous contenders such as Belmont Stakes champion Tiz the Law and Bob Baffert-trained Improbable.
That’s fine by Plank, who’s always fancied an underdog.
He did not rule out reviving his racing operation at some point, but there won’t be any active racehorses at the farm by the end of this year. Staffers will be retained but assigned to different projects, he said.
“Look at this place,” Plank said Wednesday, gesturing at the farm’s expanse. “This sport’s about more than wins and losses, but we’ve had some great wins and a ton of fun out here. You think about the anchor this thing was around the celebrations we’d have, and racing is central to it. It still will be, and if it’s not our silks racing out there at any particular time, that’s OK.”
Keenland Race Course, Kentucky
Future Stars, Friday, 2-6 p.m.
Championship Saturday, noon-6 p.m.
TV: NBC, NBC Sports Network