It wasn't just a 425-acre swath of one of the prettiest sections of Baltimore County. The place pulsed with history. Its red-roofed barns had housed some of the 20th century's greatest thoroughbreds. The remains of Native Dancer, the genetic link between many modern champions, lay beneath a tombstone at its center. Sagamore Farm fit the ambitions of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank.
When he plucked his high school buddy, Tom Mullikin, from a Kentucky farm to start a racing and breeding outfit, Plank said the only goal was to win a Triple Crown. That kind of story - winning the sport's biggest prize with a horse from one of its classic farms - could light a fire under the moribund Maryland racing industry.
And make no mistake, that's what Plank hopes to do. The CEO of the sports-apparel company wants to help save one of his state's oldest sporting pastimes.
"It seemed to me a way of making something happen," Plank says of buying the farm and founding a state-of-the-art racing operation. "It's not as cut-and-dry as needing slots or a new track. We need great stories. We need winning. This could be the bolt of lightning that energizes racing in Maryland."
For a man who believes so strongly in brands and the stories behind them, the narrative seemed too perfect to resist.
Mullikin originally thought they were looking for a more modest farm, but he shouldn't have been surprised that Sagamore kept calling to his friend. "When you walk onto this farm, you know he has big dreams," Mullikin says.
Saving a farm, sport
Plank's efforts at Sagamore, which he purchased in February 2007, have earned widespread acclaim from a Maryland racing community desperate for any snippet of good news.
"I think people in the industry are just grateful that someone like Kevin would take an interest and throw his resources into trying to breed champions," says Don Litz, president of the Maryland Stallion Station.
Any tour of historic Maryland racing spots would have to pass by Sagamore. Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer, converted the land from alfalfa fields to a horse farm in 1925. In 1933, the farm passed to his grandson, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who would become a giant in American racing.
Vanderbilt expanded the property to nearly 1,000 acres and created a sort of self-sufficient village, complete with staff dormitories and a blacksmith shop. From Sagamore, he bred a line of champions, led by the great Native Dancer, winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1953 and later, the nation's greatest sire. With Native Dancer stabled at Sagamore, a steady stream of the world's richest horse owners, including Queen Elizabeth, sent their mares to Baltimore County.
"The influence on breeding history is phenomenal, just phenomenal," Litz says. "Historically, it stacks right up there with the most significant farms in the country."
After Native Dancer's death in 1967, the Vanderbilts gradually devoted less attention to the farm and in 1986, sold it to developer Jim Ward. Under Ward's care, some renters used the barns and fields, but the extensive property fell into disrepair. Neighbors, who loved the place for its history and majestic vistas, wondered who would ever take on a restoration project of such scale.
"I never thought it would be in the right hands," says Kentucky-based racing consultant Dan Rosenberg, who has worked with Plank.
Rosenberg and others could not have fathomed the dreams of a Maryland-raised, sports-crazed entrepreneur.
"To have someone come in and really take the care to restore it, well, there aren't many people who could do it," Litz says. "Thank God for Kevin Plank."
Plank, 36, did not grow up around horses. His grandfather took him to the track sometimes when he was a kid, and he liked to party at the Preakness as a University of Maryland student. But he was a casual fan, and even as Under Armour took off and made him a multi-millionaire, he nursed no particular ambitions of owning a stable.
As he tells it, a conversation at the Maryland Million race changed all of that. Plank heard from several people that if the sport's economics did not turn around, the state could lose the Preakness.
"When you think about the great assets, the great brands in the state of Maryland, you think about Johns Hopkins, the Naval Academy, Camden Yards," he says. "But the one day of the year when the entire world looks at Maryland is Preakness day. How could we lose that?"
By chance, Mullikin had left the corporate world a few years earlier to learn the ropes of the racing business, or "the game" as he calls it. He also had no experience with horses, but he took an entry-level job at Machmer Hall in Kentucky and quickly realized that working the land and tending to animals satisfied him far more than sitting behind a desk.
In 2006, with his racing idea gestating, Plank asked his old football teammate to dinner on the pretense of just catching up. Instead, he told Mullikin he wanted to get into racing.