by Beth Herman (first published in DCMud on June 21, 2011)
(first appeared in The Equiery‘s April 2012 issue)

Sagamore FarmIf you listen quietly and long enough to sounds in the mist at Glyndon, Maryland’s Sagamore Farm, Native Dancer’s hoof beats will join up with your heartbeat.

And in 2007, smitten by the same dreams that were said to have seduced Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, Maryland native son and founder/CEO of Under Armour apparel Kevin Plank acquired Sagamore, with a dream to revitalize Sagamore and the state’s racing industry.

To pursue the dream of restoring Sagamore to her rightful throne as not only one of Maryland’s most glorious. Thoroughbred farms, but also one of its most state-of-the-art farms—as it would have been during Vanderbilt’s reign.

Plank hired arcitect John Blackburn to transform the decaying historical landmark into a peerless 21st century breeding and training operation—without sacrificing its provenance.

“Kevin had an outline and series of points—a program of what he wanted to do—how he wanted to get there,” explained Blackburn. “His goals were to restore the farm, to build on that history and to develop his own thoroughbred breeding operation that would, at some point, produce a Triple Crown winner.”
A 10-year to 15-year master plan was established, with an existing 20-stall broodmare barn and 16-stall foaling barn part of an early phase of the renovation.

Sagamore FarmThe mission of Blackburn was to update the barns using contemporary principals and technology while maintaining the historical integrity of the buildings. One of the primary challenges was how to increase ventilation and introduce more natural light and recycled materials without altering the exterior aesthetics of the existing buildings.

The solution was to remove the large haylofts from each structure, open-up the large broodmare stalls, and add skylights and Dutch doors along the exterior to court natural ventilation. “Both the broodmare and foaling barns instantly went from dark to bright, like night and day” said Blackburn.

“You want as much light as possible, as early in the season as possible for them,” Blackburn explained, “so the horse cycles naturally, without the use of artificial light.” Citing temperatures that parallel each other both inside and outside the barn as key to the horses’ health, Blackburn also took measures to ensure smooth transitions. And using the sun’s heat from the rooftop and skylight, and the horse’s own heat and humidity (horses give off a great deal of moisture), the architect worked to bring air in low and exhaust it out high. “This creates ventilation in the barn so it’s constantly venting whether it’s winter or summer,” Blackburn said. Additionally, a fan is typically placed high on a wall, directed into only one area of a stall, enabling the horse to move in and out of the breeze as needed.

“Going back to the health and safety of the horse, when driving the design of a barn, you have to duplicate nature—where they can control their environment,” Blackburn explained. “As soon as you put horses in barns they lose that control, so the barn now needs to provide them those choices.”

Where humans and sustainability measures are concerned, rubber paver flooring, recycled steel in stall systems, recycled wood finishes— from the original barn— in flooring, cabinets and desks, and preservation of an existing exterior concrete block frame and roof framing, as well as insulated barn offices to reduce energy waste, were part of the design.

With the inception of Sagamore Farm’s most recent phase, and particularly renovation of a 24-stall yearling barn, smaller 12×12 stalls will accommodate the younger horses, with sustainable materials from the two previous barns applied here, along with elements that include a signature Blackburn barns passive energy system also seen in the previous two barns.

All longtime Maryland horsemen know about the most famous barn at Sagamore, the 90-stall oval-shaped training barn with an interior quarter-mile track—certainly state-of-the-art at the time, allowing horses to be exercised in-doors in inclement weather. Acknowledging that Plank probably won’t need 90 stalls, the team is exploring how best to redesign the behemoth building.

Sagamore FarmAnother existing structure that fronts the track, and has been gutted, is a former dormitory where employees were housed and fed, along with an old blacksmith shop currently used for storage. A stallion barn, home to Native Dancer, also stands tall but devoid of life and purpose, with possibilities that include transforming it into a museum to honor Sagamore Farm’s most eminent equines.

Born at Sagamore Farm on February 20, 2008, Monzon was the first Sagamore home-bred to compete in a Triple Crown race since Native Dancer, finishing ninth. His sire is 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, Thunder Gulch, and his dam is Shadow of Mine, making Monzon a direct descendant of Native Dancer. While Sagamore Farm has yet to produce a winner of a Triple Crown race, on November 5, 2010, its Shared Account, a 46-1 shot, won the $2 million Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Slowly but surely, Sagamore Farm and Sagamore bloodlines are resuming their full glory!

A Rich History

There is perhaps no farm that quite captures the imaginations of Marylanders more than the famed Sagamore Farm on Belmont Ave. in Glyndon, Baltimore County. As described by Ross Peddicord in a December 1999 Equiery article about Native Dancer, “Over the years, Sagamore came to be thought of as “holy ground” among Maryland horse people.”

Established in 1925 by the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer, Isaac Emerson, Sagmore, the farm eventually passed to Emerson’s grandson, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II as a 21st birthday present. Vanderbilt eventually became president of Pimlico Race Course and came to dominate Maryland racing through the farm’s bloodlines, in particular those of Native Dancer.

Sired by Polynesian and out of the mare, Geisha by Discovery, (a great Vanderbilt stayer and weight carrier of the 1930s), the grey colt, winner of the Preakness, Belmont and 19 other races, lost only once–to Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby.

“Quite literally, Native Dancer is in a class of his own,” explained Peddicord in his 1999 article (which you can read at “Without Native Dancer, there would be no Mr. Prospector. Or Northern Dancer. Or Affirmed-Alydar “match races” in the Triple Crown. Or an Easy Goer to give Sunday Silence the run of his life. Or the Kentucky Derby winners Real Quiet and Charismatic. Even Maryland’s triumvirate of great stallions (Two Punch, Polish Numbers and Allen’s Prospect) all are direct descendants from the “Galloping Grey Ghost” of Sagamore, either through Native Dancer’s son, Raise a Native (sire of Mr. Prospector), or his daughter, Natalma (dam of Northern Dancer).”

The first crash of the Thoroughbred world in our generation came as a result of the 1986 changes to the tax code, and Vanderbilt sold Sagamore. For the next 20 years, Sagamore would fade into genteel shabbiness until one day rescued by a new prince…