Hunter Rankin, president of Sagamore Racing the horse racing operation at Sagamore Farm, believes they "should be competing at the highest level." (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
The history is thick in the Phipps family barn at Saratoga Race Course. So many brilliant thoroughbreds ran for the Phippses, from 1957 Horse of the Year Bold Ruler to 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
As Hunter Rankin soaked in the past glories one day this summer, it hit him — the horses he was stabling at the New York track for Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Farm were winners in their own right. They deserved to be there.
“I was really proud of that,” Rankin says. “It was so great for our brand. That’s really what Sagamore Farm should be.”
When Plank, the Under Armour founder and CEO, started Sagamore Racing 10 years ago, he hoped to steer Maryland-raised horses to victories on the most hallowed tracks in American racing. With a revamped operation chugging along under Sagamore’s young president, Rankin, and its even younger chief trainer, Horacio De Paz, that vision now seems possible.
Sagamore Racing blew past its single-year record for winners in August. De Paz took a string of horses to Saratoga this summer and won several races against the fierce competition there. Sagamore followed that up with two stakes victories on Sept. 9. And promising 2-year-old Barry Lee finished third in a stakes race Saturday at Laurel Park.
De Paz’s work has caught the eye of some of the top trainers in the sport.
“I’m very impressed, and the proof is in the results,” says Graham Motion, who’s based at Fair Hill and has handled several horses for Plank over the years. “He has shown that it’s very possible to achieve good results from a private facility, which I think certain people within the industry might have questioned. They have become a force in Maryland and warrant respect whenever and wherever they enter.”
Sagamore will never be just another farm. Plank holds executive meetings in the clocker’s tower overlooking the training track. Ray Lewis hosts groups of Baltimore schoolchildren on the full-sized football field beside the farmhouse. Staffers are always dreaming up new plans, such as a vegetable garden to serve Plank’s luxury hotel in Fells Point.
But winning is still the ultimate point.
“This year, we’re better than we were last year. And next year, I think we’ll be better than we are this year. I think the results are showing that,” Rankin says. “You’re never going to be satisfied. That’s part of the DNA that Kevin brings to this place that’s really important.”
When Plank bought Sagamore Farm, the story carried an undeniable hook: Maryland’s rising business titan pumps his new-school fortune into a place and a sport that have both seen better days.
He intentionally launched his racing venture in low-key fashion. He did not court media attention in the early days, and he opted to build his racing stock deliberately rather than drop millions of dollars on a few flashy 2-year-olds.
Plank made more of a splash with his efforts to refurbish the hallowed facility, where Alfred G. Vanderbilt bred Native Dancer and dozens of other champions, than he did with the stable’s initial racing results. With its miles of white fences and signature red-roofed barns, Sagamore is a striking visual landmark in Baltimore County horse country.
Nonetheless, when he finally gave interviews about the farm, Plank made no bones about saying a Triple Crown was his goal.
That scale of ambition didn’t seem so nuts when Sagamore filly Shared Account won a $2 million Breeders’ Cup race in 2010.
He wanted a happy farm, a place where he felt comfortable going and where it’s like Disney World — everybody’s happy and everybody can’t wait to get to work.
Sagamore Farm president Hunter Rankin, on owner Kevin Plank
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As the years rolled on, however, her victory came to feel like an isolated sensation.
Sagamore still produced good horses under the direction of Plank’s high school pal, Tom Mullikin, and in-house trainer Ignacio Correas. But there were no serious Kentucky Derby contenders, and signature wins proved elusive.
About 2½ years ago, Plank decided the time had come for a change. To engineer it, he plucked Rankin from a burgeoning career at the Sagamore Development arm of his companies.
Rankin, 35, is careful to credit Mullikin and Correas for building a sound racing operation.
“I don’t think it was a reset,” he says. “The core philosophy is the same. A lot of the people are the same. We had a very good foundation of horses here in order to take it to the next level.”
Plank’s mandate was as much about changing the feel of the farm as it was about wins and losses.
“He wanted a happy farm, a place where he felt comfortable going and where it’s like Disney World — everybody’s happy and everybody can’t wait to get to work every day,” Rankin says. “In a business where you’re in the Hall of Fame if you win 25 percent of the time, you can’t base it only on wins and losses. The intangibles have to be right. He wanted a better link back to the other businesses, and he thought that with my experience, I could provide that.”
Rankin grew up in Kentucky, the heartland of American racing, but unlike so many who share his background, he never thought thoroughbreds would be his business.
His father was an insurance salesman who bought a single mare at Keeneland and spent every dime of his savings to erect Upson Downs Farm on a family-owned plot of land in Goshen, about 30 minutes outside Louisville.
“When we moved out to the farm, I was in the womb,” Rankin says. “My dad had always told my mom he was going to have a horse farm, and she was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ They started with the one mare. They finished the paddock, literally nailing the last boards on the fence, as she was walking in.”
His father built the farm into a successful midsize commercial breeding operation. Over the years, Rankin accompanied him to glorious events such as the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. But when he graduated from the University of North Carolina, he picked the insurance business over the brutal uncertainties of the racing game.
His path changed when his older brother, who had lived in China and forged a successful career as an investment banker, died suddenly in 2012. Rankin had always admired his brother’s boldness, and he no longer felt right squandering his days on a career he didn’t much like.
He had met Plank in 2007 at a thoroughbred sale at Keeneland. He e-mailed the Under Armour CEO out of the blue, and they made plans to have dinner in Washington.
What about a real estate company that would have its hands in everything from Port Covington to a downtown hotel to a whiskey distillery?
“That sounds really fun,” Rankin thought.
He doesn’t believe he would have succeeded if he’d gone straight to the farm. He needed time to learn the culture of Plank’s companies and to earn the mogul’s faith. By the time he did return to the racing world in 2015, he was a more confident figure.
In his first move, he hired Stan Hough, a veteran trainer who had worked with his father, to buy horses and consult on the Sagamore operation. They mapped out a consistent course all their yearlings would follow, from departing to be broken at Ocala Stud in September to returning to Sagamore in March of their 2-year-old years.
“Let’s make this a model. This is how we do things,” Rankin says. “You have to have a baseline of a program, and we didn’t really have that before.”
After Correas departed, they figured they’d send most of their top horses to outside star trainers such as Motion, Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin.
De Paz had been an assistant trainer under Correas, so his status was unclear. But after three months of observing him, Rankin and Hough realized they already had the perfect guy to develop horses.
“It was quickly apparent to me and to Stan how lucky we got with Horacio and how much of a diamond in the rough he was,” Rankin says. “He’s really talented and he cares. We felt like we hit the lottery.”
Plank loves an underdog story and always wanted a single in-house trainer to guide most of his stars, so he was also happy to bet on the baby-faced horseman from West Texas.
‘Go on their gut’
The 32-year-old De Paz grew up in Snyder, an out-of-the way town of 11,000 where he learned to gallop horses in the surrounding cotton fields.
He went to college for a semester but then packed it in when he was 19 to go exercise horses at Louisiana Downs, much to his parents’ horror. When his mother saw his cramped living quarters at the track, she shook her head and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’ve always been drawn to horses,” he says. “Whether I could make money doing it or not make money, I would continue just because I enjoy the game so much.”
He apprenticed as an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and then for Pletcher. Beyond the lessons he learned from them, Rankin and Hough noted his inherent gifts.
“He has a great feel for when a horse is doing well or when a horse needs a little time,” Rankin says. “There’s certain guys — you think about a Woody Stephens or Allen Jerkens, some of those greats — and that’s what they were so good at. People try to make it science, and part of it is. But the great ones are able to go on their gut and their feel. Horacio has a very good gut and very good feel.”
They built their revamped racing program to begin in 2016, and with a solid class of 2-year-olds that included eventual four-time winner Recruiting Ready, the results were promising.
This year has been even better, and Rankin and De Paz sound bullish about their current 2-year-olds, including He Hate Me, Barry Lee and the filly Southampton Way, who have all broken their maidens.
“You start to dream,” Rankin says. “Do I think we’re going to be in the [Kentucky] Derby next year? I don’t know. But we’re going to try our best.”
Adds De Paz: “We hope with time, we’re more consistent on the national stage. I think we’re close. Obviously you build horses to try to do that and then it’s on them to show that in the afternoon. But I would think the way things are going, if we stay consistent, we should be able to do it.”
Placid as the young trainer is on the outside, he puts plenty of pressure on himself to keep winning. He was sitting at home with his wife on a recent weekend when he blurted out, “I’ve got to win a race this week.”
“You just won three last weekend,” she reminded him.
“I don’t know. I need one,” he said. “You know, it’s like one horse runs bad and it just tears you apart.”