Proud Sagamore: new day at races?

Horse racing: Once a thoroughbred showplace, the farm has fallen on hard times, but a planned stallion station could restore a semblance of its glory.

Horse Racing

October 08, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

In 1926, a horse owner stared across acres of crops north of Baltimore and envisioned another man's horse farm.

The result was Sagamore Farm, a Worthington Valley showcase with brass finishings in the barns, miles of white-board fencing and top-caliber horses in the stalls for more than half a century.

Today, the historic property has fallen on hard times symbolized by broken windows, abandoned buildings and corn stalks in the fields where champion horses once roamed.

That investors plan to start a stallion station next door and help put Sagamore back in the thoroughbred mainstream is a reprise of what happened 77 years ago.

Then, horse owner Guy Bernard Fenwick directed the land into the hands of an industrialist and his grandson, who built the farm and made it shine.

Today, Maryland horseman Don Litz has put together the investor group that plans to start a stallion station and use Sagamore's barns to board mares.

"It's a dream of mine for Sagamore to be important again, as it should be," said Litz, a former Sagamore manager.

The inclusion of Lane's End Farm, a premier commercial breeder based in Kentucky, gives the investor group credibility.

Litz recalled the reaction of Lane's End general manager Bill Farish after he viewed Sagamore last December: "His comment was, `You can tell something really special happened here.'"

Indeed, during a heyday lasting decades, it was the home of such thoroughbred legends as Native Dancer and Discovery and the workplace of horsemen such as Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's Hall of Fame trainer, and Henry Clark, a Marylander also in the Hall of Fame.

Set in rolling limestone hills just a few miles from the Beltway, the farm was a virtual city-state of horses, jockeys, trainers, grooms, blacksmiths, veterinarians and managers.

"It was at the top of the list of Maryland's farms; nothing else even compared," said Snowden Carter, the longtime Maryland racing writer.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr., one of the lions of American racing, owned the farm for 54 years and made sure its shimmer was sustained. Although he lived in New York, his farm gave Maryland credibility when it was a dim star in the breeding industry's Kentucky-centered galaxy.

"In all areas of horsemanship, from training to breaking to breeding to foaling, it was top-notch," said Paul Randall, a former Sagamore exercise rider who now works at Laurel and Pimlico and raises horses. "If you had a letter of recommendation from Sagamore, it was like saying you were a copilot on the Concorde."

Vanderbilt sold the farm to developer Jim Ward for a reported $4 million in 1987. Many feared Ward would use the land for high-end housing, a fate that has befallen many famous farms such as the Eastern Shore's Riddle Farm, where Man O' War once lived.

Instead, Ward sold the development rights to the land, receiving $2.4 million from the state in exchange for agreeing to preserve open space.

But the farm is a shadow of what it was, with the barns and outdoor track in disrepair and the fences unpainted.

"I try to avoid going by there. I don't want to see it. It's sickening," said Buddy Troyer, a trainer who worked at Sagamore from 1962 to 1987 and now lives in Palmyra, Pa.

In a recent interview, Ward said he also was displeased with the farm's condition, but blamed economic forces.

"It's been really tough," he said. "A lot of things have happened since I bought it."

Especially harmful, Ward said, was a 1987 change in the tax code that prevented owners from writing off their equine operations as business expenses.

Economic recessions and the decline of Maryland racing also have hurt, he said, limiting the pool of potential horse owners who would use the facility.

But Ward said he was "optimistic" about the impact of the new Maryland Stallion Station and has begun repairs. He has refurbished several barns and plans new fencing for much of the perimeter.

If the state legalizes slot-machine gambling in the next year or two, Ward said, he could take out loans and really make Sagamore shine again.

"There are banks that will give us $2 million to put into Sagamore if they think the [racing] industry would have a good shot with slots," Ward said. "I'm convinced that if [racetrack] purses go up, people will come."

His "perfect dream" is to sell a majority stake but remain in a partnership that operates Sagamore as a training center for thoroughbreds.

"I'd like nothing better than having everyone drive by Sagamore and say how great it looks," Ward said. "If slots pass and [the stallion station] starts rocking and rolling, I think it can happen."

Maryland's horse community is hopeful.

"Anyone with any sense of history believes that place should not be lost," said Casey Randall, an assistant trainer at Sagamore in the 1980s.

The land was once part of the sprawling Worthington estate that gave the valley its name. Until 1926, farmers used it to raise alfalfa, chicks and feeder cattle.

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