Kevin Plank seeks to repeat his Under Armour magic with historic Sagamore Farm
Blood-Horse March, 2009
The temptation-- as the red-roofed foaling and broodmare barns have gone up, the white-board fencing stretches across the perimeter, and a string of horses settle in-- is to dwell on the glory days of Sagamore Farm where Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr. bred generations of champions.
Their brightest star was Native Dancer, winner of 21 of 22 races. Nicknamed the "The Gray Ghost," his light gray coat turned snow-white when he stood here as a legendary stallion. Under a stand of sugar maple trees his grave is marked by a plain, small stone slab in an undistinguished equine cemetery.
Sagamore's new owner pays homage to its wondrous past, but Kevin Plank is clearly focused on a vision for the future.
"The farm has the DNA of champions in its bones, but being part of building something brick by brick, that's what inspires me more than anything," said Plank, 36. "We honor the legacy but we're all about looking forward."
Plank knows a thing or two about building a winner. In 1996 the Maryland-native launched Under Armor-- a moisture wicking, compression T-shirt business-- in the basement of his grandmother's townhouse in Washington, D. C.
The stretchy, fast-drying garments fit like a glove keeping athletes cool in summer and warm in winter. Recognized as a major breakthrough, the technology enabled the company to carve out a healthy niche in a fiercely competitive sporting goods market. Along the way Under Armour unwittingly created one of the shrewdest power plays in fashion history.
You get the feeling talking with Plank that he enjoys defying doubters. It's why he purchased the sacred ground of Sagamore (a Sagamore is an Indian chief) and carefully crafted a plan to resurrect the 530-acre farm in Glyndon, Md.
"I was told 'you're crazy, you can't compete with those huge companies (Nike, Reebok). They'll chew you up,'" recalled Plank, Under Armour's president and CEO, from his office that overlooks Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
"Well, something I say at Under Armour is we're smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what we can accomplish. In other words, don't tell me what we can't do. Putting a team of people together to build something special, I believe that's one of my true strengths."
With a careful eye and a measured respect for Sagamore's storied history, Plank and his team of architects, land planners and farm staff recognize the real merit lies in its varied physical components which will forever link Sagamore to its glorious past.
"It's not a two or three year plan to get to the Kentucky Derby," said the affable Plank. "I understand it's going to be a long, tough climb and I don't have all the answers. "We're talking maybe a 15 to 20 year plan. I like the idea that Tom and I are young and hungry. Besides, I don't like to fail."
Tom Mullikin played football with Plank at St. John's, a prep school in Washington D. C. They've forged a life-long bond. In 2007 Mullikin got an unexpected call from Plank offering him command of Sagamore's day-today operations.
"We're looking to produce winners, give people compelling stories to talk about, then bring those horses back here to be great stallions," Mullikin said. "Let's throw that out there. That's why we get up every morning. It's also about respecting the game, doing right by your horses and having some fun with it too."
Plank scored his first victory last year when a 2-year old filly named Bourbon Maid won a maiden special weight at Laurel Park. Maryland jockey Mario Pino was sporting Sagamore's new silks, a patterned white diamond surrounded by a block of red. The stable colors are a nod to the lovely design of white and cerise diamonds Vanderbilt campaigned for more than 60 years.
Five mares will foal at the farm this season to go along with two yearling colts and two yearling fillies. Five horses are in training with primary trainers Graham Motion and Rick Violette. Motion tutors the promising three-year old filly Shared Account who triumphed in a pair of races at Laurel Park this winter. Current plans call for the filly to run in the Florida Oaks in mid-March.
California bloodstock agent Bob Feld selected Shared Account at the Keeneland yearling sale. He recalls seeing Vanderbilt race at Santa Anita in the early 1970s.
"I remember his silks and horses," said Feld. "As a kid I felt that sense of history. Working with this farm, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"The plan is to take baby steps rather jump in full bore. Kevin is a very confident, positive person. I've been with him at Under Armour and you can see how he transfers those traits to others. We're all very optimistic. Hopefully, we can pull off some of that Sagamore magic again."
Dan Rosenberg, the former manager of Three Chimneys Farm, is a consultant to the Sagamore team as it slowly puts together a quality broodmare band through private acquisition and auctions of fillies in training, broodmares, and yearling fillies.
"I've seen too many people new to the business go out and buy a broodmare band all at once," Rosenberg related. "Usually that means paying a premium for an existing broodmare band, or buying mares you really don't want just to get the numbers up quickly. Kevin is taking the long view.
"It is obvious that Kevin's vision, enthusiasm, and talents in branding and team building were all integral to his success at Under Armour. Kevin brings that same energy to Sagamore and it is fun to be involved."
The youngest of five brothers Plank grew up in Kensington, Md. His mother worked for the State Department during the Reagan administration, while his late father, William, was a developer.
A walk-on at the University of Maryland, Plank was chosen as special teams captain, and played linebacker. In his spare time Plank was notorious for his entrepreneurial ventures on the College Park campus.
After graduating Plank had one of those eureka moments. Why should football players wear those dank, clammy gray T-shirts under their pads? His answer was to develop a batch of snug fitting, polyester-Lycra blend T-shirts that wicked sweat away from the body that also helped regulate temperature during exercise.
Under Armour's explosive growth over the past decade has been spurred by its unique hard-core athlete branding strategy. Their catchy slogan, "Protect This House" became a rallying cry for all kinds of athletes and helped propel Under Armour into the big leagues of sportswear sales alongside Nike, Reebok and others. Last year the company introduced a performance-training shoe and they're planning a big sales push for a running shoe in 2009.
It has launched retail stores in four locations across the country as well as 25 outlet stores. In a wafer-flat economy, Under Armour saw revenues in 2008 climb to $725.2 million, a jump of 20 percent from $606.6 million in 2007.
"Our brand stands for quality and attention to detail," Plank noted. "Even in a tough economy I think we have the ability to really connect with the consumer."
Echoes of history
It's a safe bet that Plank was wearing his tight fitting gear as he pedaled through the Worthington Valley several years ago. Located roughly 20 minutes northwest of downtown Baltimore, not much has changed from the 18th-century. You'll find large tracts of preserved lands and lovely fieldstone homes. It's been the home of the famed Maryland Hunt Cup each spring since 1894.
"As I rode through this thicket of trees it opened up into this great, expansive valley," Plank recalled. "I just thought it was the most spectacular piece of scenery in the state. The farm had fallen on hard times. It was pretty rundown. I did a lot of my training up and down Belmont Road. You couldn't help but feel the history."
Once part of the Worthington estate that gave the valley its name, farmers there raised alfalfa, chicks and cattle.
When it came on the market in 1926 Issac Emerson, the Baltimore chemist who patented Bromo-Seltzer and became one of the richest men in America, bought it. The farm was a gift for his daughter Margaret, the widow of Alfred Vanderbilt, Sr., who needed a base for her thoroughbred stable.
The great-great-grandson of steamship and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, tall and handsome, Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr. epitomized the racing blueblood. In 1933 Alfred's mother Margaret presented Sagamore and its racing stables to her son Alfred as a 21st birthday gift.
For the next 40 years Vanderbilt trained his yearlings and two-year olds there and his stallions were based at the farm. His thoroughbred operation was one of the best in the country. Vanderbilt's line of stars beginning with Discovery, who won six stakes races in 1934, won 27 of his 63 races over all and later sired 25 horses that won stakes. Other champions Vanderbilt (who passed away in 1999) bred included Petrify, Conniver, Bed 'o Roses, Next Move and Jam.
Scan the vistas and you can almost feel Vanderbilt's bustling thoroughbred operation. At its peak, the farm grew to nearly 1,000 acres with 20 buildings and nearly 70 full-time employees including trainers, exercise riders, grooms, veterinarians, blacksmiths and grounds managers.
Stepping into the sprawling, white octagonal barn, there is a string of 90 stalls with cerise-brushed doors. Each has its own intricately carved white tack box, imprinted with four red diamonds. The stalls frame a quarter-mile indoor track where horses worked out when snow piled up outside. See the arch over that stall? That was Native Dancer's box, reconfigured so the rangy gray didn't have to duck his head when coming and going.
Ralph Kercheval, now 97, and his wife Blanche managed the farm for Vanderbilt during its heyday, from 1948 to 1958. It was Kercherval who advised Vanderbilt on the breeding session that produced Native Dancer. "We were so excited about his racing and then when "Nate" retired that huge barn was filled with top-class mares," recalled Blanche, 93. "Alfred would come down a lot of weekends. Very smart and witty and he loved the women. A number of famous friends would turn up. I remember watching the Maryland Hunt Cup with some very important racing people from the top of one of our hills. It was a magical time." Beyond the training barn are the former kitchen and dining room that was supervised by a Japanese-born cook, and the dormitory that housed as many as 70 grooms, exercise riders and men who kept the farm running. The outdoor three-quarter mile training strip was racetrack quality. Further ahead sits the equine cemetery, where such greats as Loser Weeper, Bed o' Roses, Discovery and the incomparable Native Dancer were put to rest.
Rebuilding a legend
After graduating from college Mullikin spent seven years working as an IT guy for the Gannet Co. By then he had soured on taking the subway to work and the corporate grind. Through a friend he heard about a job at Macher Hall, a farm in Paris, Ky., and stepped onto the lowest rung of the thoroughbred world.
"Started out mucking stalls, worked my way up," said Mullikin, a native of Silver Spring. Md. "I was living in a trailer with my girlfriend and two dogs, not making great money. But every day I went to work around these great athletes that lifted my spirit."
In July of 2006 when Mullikin and his family were driving through Baltimore, he met Plank and his wife DJ for dinner.
"He told me he wanted to get into the game," Mullikin recalled. "I said, 'that's great. And he replied, "No, I want us to do it together. Best after dinner conversation I've ever had."
Plank admits he could have hired someone with more seasoning to manage of the iconic landmark.
"One of my greatest strengths is picking people," Plank explained. "I'm never sold on someone's lofty resume, rather how they perform at game time. Tom is hungry, he really wants this to succeed."
A friend put Plank in touch with then current owner, Jim Ward, who had purchased the farm from Vanderbilt in 1986. Plank closed on the deal in February 2007.
"Kevin took the big swing and went for it," said Mullikin with a broad smile. "In the beginning I was a little overwhelmed. You see the old barns and buildings, the old track. It was like renovating a ghost town. Like climbing a mountain, you don't look up. We're taking it project by project and just keep our heads down and work hard."
Mullikin and his crew started the resurrection by hauling off 30 dumpsters of debris from the barns and outbuildings two years ago. They transformed 150 acres of cornfield into lush pastures once more. The first rebuilding phase was the installation of ten miles of bright, white fencing and refurbished houses on the property for Mullikin's family and five other employees. Blackburn Architects designed the renovations of the 22-stall broodmare barn and the 20-stall foaling barn.
As a late winter wind whips across Sagamore's grounds Mullikin and his crew are restoring the weedy-choked, rock-strewn, three-quarter mile training track. Later this year Plank's stock of young runners will turn up for morning gallops. Adjacent to the track resides a vintage two-story clockers' tower and starting gate, reminders of glory days past.
Many local horsemen believe Plank can be the lightning bolt that re-ignites racing in Maryland.
"How do you create a buzz in Maryland," he inquired. "It's not slots machines. How about watching horses breeze around this training track. That'll be special. We want them born here, broken and schooled here. Keep them here as long as we can before they head to the track.
"We're looking to produce great horses that run with a lot of heart. We're looking for winners and more winners, that's what's it's all about."