Under Armour founder eyes Belmont winner's circle

Monzon carries Triple Crown hope for restored Sagamore Farm

June 04, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Kevin Plank tries to play it cool, but sometimes he just can't maintain the facade.

"We were, like, jumping out of our skins," the Under Armour founder says, sounding like a teenager as he recalls the scene after his filly Shared Account won a $2 million Breeder's Cup race in November as a 46-1 long shot. "They were lucky I didn't take off my shirt and run across the finish line myself."

Such wins are just what Plank expected when he bought historic Sagamore Farm four years ago with dreams of re-creating a world-class racing operation in northern Baltimore County. But the payoff came a touch sooner than anyone expected.

"It's validation of what we've been doing here," Plank said on a spring afternoon from a cozy chair in the farm office. "We're more than pretty white fences and beautiful green fields. We want to be a farm to be considered. We want people to say, 'Uh-oh, a Sagamore horse is in this field.'"

Initially, the Sagamore story was that of a bold new player on the Maryland horse scene, polishing a faded gem of a farm — where Alfred G. Vanderbilt bred a line of champions led by Native Dancer, winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1953. But in the past year, Plank's stable has matured into a more formidable racing operation.

Shared Account's win at the Breeder's Cup was the sharpest note of validation, but not the only one. On New Year's Day, Monzon, a gelding born on the farm, won a stakes race that fueled dreams of a start in the Kentucky Derby. A bad run early this year derailed the Derby hopes, but Monzon will run Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, the first entry in a Triple Crown race for Plank's Sagamore.

On Preakness Day, Plank ran two of hishorses before the home folks. Shared Account, who stables with Derby winnerAnimal Kingdom under trainer Graham Motion, finished fourth in the Gallorette. Three-year-old colt Humble and Hungry finished second in the James W. Murphy Stakes.

"A couple years ago, this didn't feel like a functional farm," says Tom Mullikin, the high school buddy whom Plank coaxed from Kentucky to run Sagamore, on Belmont Avenue in Glyndon. "Now it does. With our facilities, we can do what we want to do."

Plank, who built Under Armour into a billion-dollar sports apparel empire, is not a patient guy. He was thinking Triple Crown before he even bought a farm to house the horses. But Mullikin and other advisers helped him understand the vagaries of horse racing, where even the wisest trainers and richest owners may go decades without winning the Kentucky Derby.

Plank says he has learned to appreciate the victories as they come, but there's no question his mind races to the biggest possible goals.

"We didn't get into this to run only in local races," he says. "We want to run in Dubai and Hong Kong. That's a powerful message about Maryland racing."

"That's the mindset he lives by and we live by," Mullikin says. "If you're going to set goals, you might as well set them high."

Rebuilding Sagamore

Longtime members of the Maryland racing community root for Plank's quest at Sagamore.

"It's wonderful to see an establishment with such rich history regenerated and brought back to promise," says longtime trainer Bill Boniface of Bonita Farm in Darlington. "They've done it right. I think we're going to see [Plank] not just here in Maryland but in the national spotlight for years to come."

The farm had fallen into disrepair under previous owners, but Plank and company have restored it to a lovely vision. Driving north on Greenspring Avenue, you cruise down a hill, shrouded in leafy trees, and emerge through a sunlit portal. There it is, laid out before you, 530 acres of gleaming white fences, lush fields and red-roofed barns.

"It's a place where people can come to get away from reality," Plank says. "Almost like a fantasy."

As an ardent booster of his home state, he had fumed at talk in recent years that the Preakness could move elsewhere. So he resolved to do something about it the best way he knew how — by creating a Maryland racing story so great that naysayers would have to shut up.

He would buy one of the state's greatest horse farms, restore it to its former majesty and breed a Triple Crown winner there.

For the first two years after Plank bought Sagamore in February 2007, the farm's physical rehabilitation received more attention than the horses produced there. Mullikin and his crews replaced six miles of fencing, converted cornfields to grazing pastures, overhauled two barns and regraded the three-quarter-mile training track.

With the initial work mostly done by fall 2009, the racing operation took center stage. Ignacio Correas, a wise-cracking Argentine who had worked in racing hotbeds across the country, arrived to train Plank's horses.

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