Tomorrow, the 138th Preakness Stakes, or the “Freakness” as it is sometimes affectionately known in Baltimore, will run at the Pimlico Race Course.
Whether you find yourself at the race sipping Black-Eyed Susans and wearing a pink taffeta dress that matches the flower on your hat, or funneling malt liquor and wearing black denim shorts that match the tattoo on your abdomen, you will be participating in the long Maryland tradition of thoroughbred horse racing. It’s a tradition that owes much of its rich history, and maybe even a bit of its optimistic future, to the pragmatism of Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt.
Margaret’s first son, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, was born in 1912. Mrs. Vanderbilt was hopeful that her boy would grow up to be a businessman and she had good reason to be bullish. Men on both sides of Alfred’s family had built huge companies (Bromo-Seltzer on her side and the New York Central Railroad on her husband’s side). Now widowed, Margaret was one of the wealthiest people in America…and this was “Gatsby” America, which we all now know (thanks, Baz) was the real deal.
Alfred, as it turned out, had other interests (such a thankless job, the parenting). “Since the first time I went to the races at Pimlico at the age of 9,” Mr. Vanderbilt once said, ”I have had this wonderful feeling about racing. I don’t go to the races because I just love horses. It’s like the person who goes to the circus and falls in love with the whole show, not just the elephants.”
His mother found his love of horse racing to be unwavering and being a realist, she did what any logical, ridiculously wealthy mother would do: She gave him a 600-acre horse farm in Glyndon, Maryland called Sagamore Farm as a gift for his 21st birthday.
Alfred Vanderbilt took the opportunity at Sagamore and literally ran with it. Tireless in his pursuit of perfection, he often slept in the barns, overseeing the breeding and training of his stable. For his growing manpower needs, he hired unemployed men hit by the depression, giving each worker a full set of new clothing, a well-maintained dormitory room and three square meals a day. Mr. Vanderbilt’s theory was that good conditions created good work.
And good work it was. With his state of the art facility, Alfred would go on to breed, train and race some of the most famous horses of his day including Discovery and Bed O’ Roses. But his most triumphant moments came through the talents of Native Dancer, who won 21 of his 22 races and lost the other one, the Kentucky Derby, by a head. All three of the horses are buried on the Sagamore property.
Native Dancer did not care much for people but liked small animals. He was particularly fond of a black cat who shared his stall and raised a litter of kittens there. A tradition of only black cats residing at Sagamore continues today.
In his life Mr. Vanderbilt served as president of Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, head of the New York Racing Association and the United States Jockey Club. He is revered as the impresario of horse racing’s golden age and and enduring example of an elegant sportsman.
Alfred Vanderbilt sold Sagamore and by 1986 it had fallen into disrepair. In 2007, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, flush with compression garment cash, saved it. Kevin, a Maryland native, says that rather than an innate love of horse racing, he bought the farm out of competitive pride. “Horse racing is just so much a part of the history of this state,” he says. “And people were just forgetting it, just letting it go.” He was not about to let that happen.
Two days ago, I toured Sagamore Farms and saw, first hand, that Mr. Plank has put his money where his mouth is. Sagamore circa 2013 is a picture perfect bucolic ideal. The 17-miles of new white fence, regrown meadows, freshly painted red roofs and state of the art race track give testament to his intentions.
Touring the property’s buildings, it’s obvious that there is still some work to be done. Primarily, the continued renovation of the original stables and indoor track. I was told by my charming tour guide, Randy Lewis, that Plank wants to fund the work with the success of his race horses. “He doesn’t just want a show. Kevin doesn’t want all hat and no cattle.”
I wrapped-up my tour in a beautiful new stable, filled with majestic horses that were being tended to like rich housewives at Canyon Ranch.
As I watched the dozen or so workers hurry about I found it inspiring to see such passion and new life revived into a dream that is almost 100 years old. Alfred Vanderbilt, and even his mother Margaret, would be proud.