Sagamore Farm has been known for decades as place where many champion horses had their start.
Now, it’s going to be known as a place where championship whiskey has its start.
Owner Kevin Plank, who purchased the historic farm outside of Glyndon, Md., in 2007, recently announced plans to discontinue the Thoroughbred training, breeding and racing program. He’ll now start growing rye and corn there, key ingredients in Sagamore Spirit brand of whiskey.
Plank, also the founder and executive chairman of global sports apparel brand Under Armour, plans to keep the farm in his family, along with a few retired or smaller horses not intended for breeding. Several past champions are also buried on the property.
But the days of it being an active part of the equine community are through.
When making the announcement in early November, Plank said he was proud of the farm’s legacy and how he and others were able to help re-energize interest horse racing in the state. But after 14 years, he felt it was time to try a different endeavor for the property.
The billionaire philanthropist is excited about being able to focus more on creating and promoting the award-winning liquor.
Sagamore Spirit rye whiskey has won more than 50 prestigious awards and more than one critic has called it the best of its kind in the world. Whiskey lovers regularly praise the perfect caramel color of all six expressions, as well as its subtle yet sweet tastes of brown sugar, pepper, cinnamon and clove.
Plank and others credit natural spring water drawn from a local limestone aquifer with not only contributing to the quality of the rye but to the success of the equine program over the years.
The original spring house was built in 1909, and the farm was purchased in 1925 by Isaac Emerson, known for inventing Bromo-Seltzer. A dirt training track was built a year later, which remained in use until 2008, when the surface was change to synthetic material that’s also environmentally friendly and infused with fragments of Under Armour apparel.
The farm was later given to Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Jr., for his 21st birthday in 1933 by his mother, who was Emerson’s daughter. Vanderbilt helped grow Sagamore Farm into one of the top training and breeding facilities in the world.
He later became president of the Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore and also was head of the U.S. Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association.
Vanderbilt and other investors came together in 1941 to acquire Bahram, the 1935 English Triple Crown winner, for breeding purposes. He stood at stud for many years. Vanderbilt and a different group of associates purchased Kauai King in 1966, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Various thoroughbred champions spent time at Sagamore Farm, including several in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Some were:
- Discovery, a chestnut stallion, was considered one of the greatest horses in the 1930s and the first horse to be voted U.S. Champion Handicap. He retired to stud here in 1936.
- Bed O’Roses, a bay filly, who was named the American Champion Two-Year Filly in 1949 Champion Handicap Filly in 1951.
- Native Dancer, nicknamed the Galloping Grey Ghost because of his unique gray coat, was also considered the first racehorse to be seen on TV. He did lose the Kentucky Derby in 1953, but came back to earn wins at Belmont, Preakness and Travers Stake. He also was declared Horse of the Year in 1954.
The Vanderbilt family sold the farm to developer in 1986, but 11 years later Plank, a Maryland native, approached him with an offer to purchase the property and continue the area’s legacy as a place for championship horses.
Plank, a former special teams captain of the University of Maryland football team, started his business in 1996 by selling microfiber shirts up and down the East Coast. The innovative shirt design wicked moisture well and they soon became popular with individual athletes, entire teams and the XFL football division.
After purchasing Sagamore Farm, Plank quickly established the Sagamore Racing program, which has already led to champions in the form of Shared Account, who won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf honors; and Global Campaign who also has a promising future, including a seventh place at the 2020 Breeders’ Cup.
In the last few years, Kevin Plank has begun selling horses but has also put more attention toward Sagamore Spirit.
The distillery opened in 2015 in the Port Covington area, and was considered one of the first distilleries to open in the state since Prohibition.
Today, the Sagamore Spirit campus includes a processing center, tasting rooms, and gift store. Rye Street Tavern, an independently-owned restaurant and bar, is also on the property.
While the distillation process begins there, the whiskey ages for up to four years at a barrel facility in North Point. Until 2017 it purchased its source ingredients, including rye, from Indiana. But the company began looking for a local source.
Many of these efforts came about due to the work of Plank, who also based his apparel company in the Baltimore area and continues to find innovative projects to get behind.