Tiger Walk’s entry would mark another milestone for Plank’s restored Sagamore Farm
Kevin Plank can’t help himself.
The Under Armour CEO might know, in his heart of hearts, that his horse is a long shot against the world’s finest 3-year-old thoroughbreds. His farm manager, Tom Mullikin, describes the dark bay colt as more “grinder” than star.
But Plank’s own rise, from blindly ambitious college kid to billionaire apparel mogul, is an underdog tale. So he can’t help but play Joe Namath and talk big about his colt’s chances in the 137th Preakness Stakes.
“Tommy, did you guarantee on Tiger Walk?” Plank says, teasing his good friend, Mullikin. Then, he stares into a television camera with a big grin and says, “Tiger Walk will win.”
Plank is all about big stories. He bought Sagamore Farm five years ago with dreams of producing a Triple Crown winner from the same patch of northern Baltimore County that produced the great Native Dancer, winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1953.
He wanted to enter his horses in the biggest races, and on Saturday, he hopes Tiger Walk will be the first horse from his Sagamore revival to start in the Preakness.
What if he could send an unheralded colt to victory in his home state’s biggest race?
“We’d be running around Pimlico with a Maryland flag draped on our shoulders on NBC,” Plank says.
First, Tiger Walk needs to qualify for the Preakness field, which is not a given. An unusual number of contenders from the Kentucky Derby are still considering runs at Pimlico Race Course, and it’s conceivable that Plank’s horse could be shut out because 14 entrants — the maximum for the Preakness — have more career earnings. But Mullikin placed the chances of entry at 80 percent late last week, with the field to be finalized on Wednesday.
Tiger Walk’s entry represents the next step in Plank’s dream for the farm. Sagamore was a faded gem when he bought it in February 2007. Paint peeled off barns; pebbles and weeds cluttered the three-quarter-mile training track; and a top thoroughbred hadn’t trod the grounds in decades.
It was a far cry from the farm’s apex under the ownership of Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, when the place functioned like a miniature city, complete with a blacksmith shop and staff dormitories. In those days, Sagamore was a capital of American racing, the home of the sport’s greatest sire, Native Dancer.
Under Plank, who says he loves fixing broken things, the 530-acre farm has regained its visual splendor. The miles and miles of white fencing and the signature red roofs gleam once more. Beautiful horses again gallop over the training track, now covered in a water-resistant synthetic substance, flecked with recycled bits of Under Armour gear. The farm’s signature emblem of three cerise red diamonds adorns everything from saddles, to hats worn by staff members to the door knobs in the farmhouse.
The racing operation is coming along as well. Sagamore filly Shared Account shocked everyone by winning a $2 million Breeder’s Cup race in 2010. Last year, home-bred gelding Monzon gave Plank his first Triple Crown start, in the Belmont Stakes. And now, Tiger Walk could run in the hometown race that Plank used to attend as a rowdy teenager.
As a lover of brands, Plank hopes that Sagamore will one day be talked about in the same breath as the Ravens and Orioles. He wants to invite the public to the farm at the beginning of every race season to introduce them to the top horses. He hopes that on Kentucky Derby day, casual sports fans will wonder, “Does Sagamore have a horse running?”
The farm took a step in that direction this year, producing a glossy program with biographies of top racers such as Tiger Walk and Millionreasonswhy, a filly who will likely run at Pimlico the day before Preakness.
It’s a brisk April afternoon, a few weeks before Triple Crown season, and the horses are parading before a line of news photographers. Tiger Walk is the star of the moment, getting a pat on the nose from Plank, who has just emerged from his Ferrari, looking casually hip in his black suede shoes and Under Armour windbreaker.
The farm’s resident trainer, Ignacio Correas IV, looks on as the colt stares dreamily out his stall window, oblivious to the cameras. “You can see, he don’t care about nothing,” Correas says in his Argentinian accent.
The trainer tempers expectations for the horse, who won twice at Laurel Park last year and ran fourth in both the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial, Kentucky Derby prep races at New York’s Aqueduct racetrack. If Tiger Walk makes the Preakness field, he’ll be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who has steered two previous mounts to victory in the race.
“I think he’s a good horse, but he needs to step up,” Correas says. “He’ll run a good race. He always does. But he could run a good race and finish fifth.”
The trainer, like the horses, lives in a kind of fantasy land at Sagamore. He doesn’t have to worry about jostling for workout times at Laurel or Pimlico. He has his own track, a short walk from the farm’s tranquil barns, and he can work his athletes whenever he pleases.
“You see what we have here,” he says. “We have privilege, everything we need. So we have no excuses. I would say it’s almost unique.”
Talking about the farm a few minutes later, Plank describes it as a palette. “I don’t know that the perfect model for racing has been built yet,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re tweaking.”
He then compares the farm to an improving athletic team that has to learn how to win in the playoffs. “We have denied nothing to Tiger Walk,” he says of the Kentucky-bred colt, whom he purchased as a yearling. “There’s no reason why he couldn’t be our next Preakness champion.”
There’s a visitor on hand who’s uniquely suited to judge Plank’s progress. Alfred G. Vanderbilt III is 62 and hasn’t set foot on the farm since he was teenager. But he remembers vividly his father’s words about the sweet water at Sagamore, which fed the grass that fed the horses. “I don’t know that there are any stronger or more beautiful horses than those at Sagamore,” Vanderbilt says.
He marvels at Plank’s efforts to restore his father’s vision. Asked if he might travel from his New York home to attend the Preakness, Vanderbilt says, “If they have a horse in, maybe.”
The names of Plank’s horses all feature some Under Armour connection, and Tiger Walk is no different. Auburn University is a client of the company, and on football Saturdays, Auburn fans line the street to watch their team walk into the home stadium. The ritual is know as the Tiger Walk. The name also plays off those of the colt’s parents, Tale of the Cat and Majestic Trail.
Mullikin, Plank’s buddy since high school, has developed a whole arsenal of metaphors to capture Tiger Walk’s odds of winning the big race. “We’re not quite Kentucky or Duke,” he says, choosing an NCAA tournament comparison. “But Lehigh took down Duke, and we’re like a Lehigh.”
A few weeks later, with the Preakness looming, a worker, at the farm to do some resurfacing, asks Mullikin about the Preakness entry. “Maybe lightning will strike,” the farm manager offers. “He’ll be long odds, so he’s worth a [betting] ticket.”
Mullikin is asked about the colt’s personality: Is Tiger Walk one of those equine reprobates he likes to call knuckleheads?
“No,” says Plank’s right-hand horseman. “But, I mean, he’s not the most elegant. He’ll be a great representative for Baltimore. He’s not Dom Perignon; he’s more Natty Boh.”