After bucking the odds to become a major player in the sports apparel business, Kevin Plank is eyeing a similar role in horse racing.
Plank, the founder and owner of Under Armour, bought Sagamore Farm in 2007. The 530-acre training and breeding facility was once the home of Native Dancer, winner of the Preakness and Belmont in 1953. After spending millions of dollars to refurbish the farm, Plank is poised to take the next step in his bid to restore Maryland's rich racing tradition.
Having already produced a Breeder's Cup winner and a Belmont Stakes entrant at Sagamore Farm, Plank will enter Tiger Walk in Saturday's Preakness. His ultimate goal, however, is to develop a Triple Crown winner.
Plank figures Maryland, and Sagamore Farm in particular, is as good a place as any to breed the next great horse.
"I don't think there's anybody that owns the right," he said. "We haven't had a Triple Crown winner in 33 years. What other sport hasn't named a legitimate champion in 33 years? So that is far overdue, and no one in Kentucky has done it. These aren't God-given rights limited to growing up in Kentucky. Maryland has that kind of history with Man of War, War Admiral, Native Dancer. So why not us?"
Sagamore Farm made a profound impression on the sport in 2010 when Shared Account won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Fillies and Mares race. Last year, Monzon finished ninth in the Belmont.
And what of Tiger Walk, the fourth-place finisher in the Wood Memorial? Trained by Ignaco Correas, the dark bay son of Tale of the Cat will have two-time Preakness winner Kent Desormeaux in the saddle.
"No doubt, he needs to step up," Correas said. "He will run a good race because he always does. But a good race could be a fourth, or a fifth or a sixth. We're working on that. He's giving us more, but it might not be enough."
Tiger Walk will wear blinkers for the first time Saturday, a change Correas hopes will improve the horse's focus.
The always confident Plank won't predict a victory, but the other 13 entrants don't concern him - including Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another.
"We won the Breeders' Cup two years ago with a 46-1 long shot," Plank noted. "Nobody thought that she could do it. But she won. That's what makes horse racing great - that lottery ticket in your pocket. I can't guarantee a win, but I know I'll bet on it. And why not that horse? This much I do know: We need to believe in long shots. That is what makes America great."
The 39-year-old Plank knows a thing or two about pulling of an upset. Soon after leaving the University of Maryland, where he played football, he took on Nike and Reebok by creating the Under Armour, a sports clothing and accessories company. Business got off to a slow start, but sales ultimately rocketed and provided Plank with a multimillion-dollar empire.
Although he's passionate about racing, for now Plank's day job remains a priority. For that reason, his sprawling, scenic farm also serves as home to business meetings and weekend brainstorming sessions for the company's top officials.
"This farm isn't exactly paying the bills. Having Sagamore, it's a retreat destination," he said. "Baltimore is very nice, but 17 miles away is a place as beautiful as anyplace in the country. We're very proud of it. What is Maryland? Maryland is about racing, and if we can help revitalize that industry, that's a pretty powerful message."
Plank believes Sagamore Farm is the perfect place to make it happen.
"I'm never going to shy away from a big goal," he said. "I think we have enough money to do something special with this broad of a platform, with as much history as Sagamore Farm has. We've been in a couple of big races and we've won some. Now we're thinking about chapter two and chapter three.
"Why not us? That type of mentality, there's nothing more American than that. And I don't think there's a better vehicle than the state of Maryland. We have a great history. It takes people back to a long time ago when horse racing was the No. 2 sport in America. We have that train of thought behind it. Because there's nothing that can rally a group of people like a horse, whether it's Barbaro or Big Brown or anybody else."
Right now, Sagamore Farm has 16 employees and stables 57 horses. The racing stable consists of 28 horses, with 15 of them untested 2-year-olds. Although Tiger Walk was purchased as a yearling, the goal is to develop the horses from an even earlier age.
"Cradle to grave," said Tom Mullikin, the farm's general manager. "The horse is born here. Then we raise it, break it, train it and race it on the training track."
That training track, by the way, is made up primarily of recycled Under Armour shirts. That doesn't mean Plank is cutting corners. Just being smart.
"They told us we have to buy Lycra," Plank said with a laugh. "I said, `Do you know how much Lycra costs? We're using our own stuff.' The only true athletic track in the world is here at Sagamore Farm."
It's all part of the master plan.
"There is a winning mentality that's in the water here, in the soil here, in the grass we use to feed the horses," Plank said. "And it has to become cultural. Maybe it doesn't happen with our first crop of 3-year-olds or the second crop. But in time, those things start showing up. I believe in time we will be able to realize our goal, which is to win the Triple Crown."