If 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.
Shining star of the (now) 530-acre horse breeding farm established in 1925 by Bromo-Seltzer inventor Isaac Emerson, the fabled "Galloping Gray Ghost" stands tall among the greatest racehorses of the 20th century, winning 21 out of 22 races, as well as a place in successive Sagamore owner Alfred P. Vanderbilt II’s own heart. The stoic, "unsentimental” scion of industry was reportedly never quite the same after his beloved horse’s death in 1967.
Before its sale to entrepreneur James Ward in 1986, Sagamore Farm, which had been a 21st birthday gift to Vanderbilt from his mother (Emerson’s daughter) in 1933, would produce winners such as Discovery, Bed o’Roses and Native Dancer, and employ many dozens of grooms, trainers, blacksmiths, hot-walkers, domestic personnel and the like. When Maryland’s horse racing industry succumbed to revised federal tax laws and recession, Ward’s decision to convert the property to home sites was rejected by the community, so he commissioned renowned equestrian architects Blackburn Architects, P.C. to turn a portion of the farm into a private home/equestrian center for his wife. Several old barns were leased to thoroughbred breeding and training entities.
But in 2007, smitten by the same dreams that were said to have seduced Alfred P. Vanderbilt II, Maryland native son and founder/CEO of Under Armour apparel Kevin Plank bought the farm, so to speak, with a goal to help revitalize the state’s racing industry. Plank’s mandate in also retaining John Blackburn, and project manager Daniel Blair, was to transform what had become a largely 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,” Blackburn said, noting the former University of Maryland football team captain clearly wanted to return Sagamore Farm to its original glory. “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.”
Embarking on a 10-to 15-year master plan, an existing 20-stall broodmare barn and 16-stall foaling barn comprised an early phase of the renovation with methods and materials emblematic of Blackburn Architects’ “health and safety of the horses first” philosophy. Known for their prodigious use of natural light and ventilation— the latter a component in a passive energy system, as well incorporating aerodynamic principles and recycled materials into more than 150 horse farms over 25 years, Blackburn and Blair applied these tenets to produce Sagamore Farm barns that entirely supported the needs of their diverse equine residents, but without altering the exterior aesthetic of the existing buildings.
Removing typically large haylofts from each structure, opening up large but enclosed stalls and adding 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” Blackburn said, especially important for the broodmares.
“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.”
A sustainable tack
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 which began on February 1, smaller 12x12 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.
Speaking to various additional projects on the property, Blackburn said Sagamore Farm’s three quarters-of-a-mile training track was completely redone with footing developed by Plank himself and Under Armour, something separate from the architects’ work.
According to Blackburn, the most interesting structure on the venue is the 90-stall oval-shaped training barn with an interior quarter-mile track. “It’s a very unique barn, with maybe only one other similar to it in the entire state,” Blackburn said. Acknowledging that Plank probably won’t need 90 stalls, the team is exploring how best to redesign the behemoth building.
Another 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.
“Their use is a moving target,” Blackburn said of these and a host of other idle, existing buildings, including guest and reception spaces that dot the property. “As they develop the farm and breeding stock and get into more operational aspects, their needs may change.”
While Sagamore Farm has yet to produce a Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes winner (Native Dancer’s great-great-great grandson Monzon ran most recently at Belmont), on November 5, 2010, its Shared Account, a 46-1 shot, won the $2 million Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf, defeating the celebrated Midday. Plank is admittedly taking his time building breeding stock, and a racing reputation, having crossed his first professional finish line as the creator of Under Armour apparel before he turned 30.
And even with a quarter-century of specialty barns in his personal paddock, Blackburn, like Plank, is just getting started.
Photos courtesy Cesar Lujan
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