Instant Coffee as a very personable youngster at Upson Downs Farm (Photo by Adrianna Lynch)
The 1953 Kentucky Derby produced one of the greatest upsets in history, as Sagamore Farm’s legendary Native Dancer suffered his only loss, by a head to Dark Star. Seventy years later, another colt with a Sagamore connection will try to earn the roses – Instant Coffee.
The link is more of a circuitous thread, even a technicality, but the record book will doggedly preserve it. Instant Coffee was officially bred by Sagamore, only because the farm was still listed as the owner of his dam at the time. He himself was never on the historic Maryland property. Instead, he was born and raised at Upson Downs Farm near Goshen, Kentucky, just up the Ohio River from Louisville. Thus if his background was Sagamore-related, Instant Coffee is himself entirely a product of Upson Downs.
In contrast, Native Dancer was virtually synonymous with Alfred G. Vanderbilt II’s storied Sagamore. Often described as racing’s first TV celebrity, the “Grey Ghost” was a fan favorite who won 21 of 22 starts during his Hall of Fame career, except for that troubled near-miss in the Derby. The length of Dark Star’s head was all that kept him from a sweep of the Triple Crown.
Native Dancer returned home to Sagamore as a stallion and ultimately passed away in 1967, but not before leaving an incalculable legacy. An essential building-block in modern pedigrees, Native Dancer frequently appears via his son Raise a Native (sire of Mr. Prospector) and daughter Natalma (dam of Northern Dancer), as well as other vectors.
Instant Coffee is among his countless descendants
, with both Northern Dancer and Raise a Native repeating in distant generations of his pedigree. Another remote ancestor, Icecapade, is out of the Native Dancer mare Shenanigans, best known as the dam of the sublime if ill-fated Ruffian.
The 21st-century Sagamore likewise evolved from its midcentury version. Having changed hands a couple of times, the Glyndon, Maryland, farm experienced a brief renaissance under owner Kevin Plank.
The founder of the Under Armour sportswear company, headquartered in Baltimore, the Maryland-born Plank acquired Sagamore in 2007 and soon brought it back into the racing limelight. Sagamore campaigned 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf
(G1) winner Shared Account (and bred her Breeders’ Cup-winning daughter Sharing); teamed up with partners in multiple Grade 1 queen Miss Temple City; and raced 2020 Woodward (G1) hero Global Campaign, with his breeder, WinStar Farm, as co-owner. Global Campaign would be a decisive influence on the very existence of Instant Coffee, as we’ll see.
Among Sagamore’s auction purchases in this period was a well-bred daughter of champion Uncle Mo, from a productive KatieRich Farms family. A $100,000 buy as a two-year-old in training at OBS April in 2016, she was yet unnamed.
Alpine skiing legend Lindsey Vonn would take care of that. As one of Under Armour’s celebrity endorsers, the Olympic gold medalist visited Sagamore and got to meet the horses. Vonn told the Baltimore Sun that she won a bet with Plank, and in return, he let her name a youngster.
Vonn apparently bonded with the Uncle Mo filly, since she chose that one to name.
“My new love,” Vonn wrote on an Instagram post with a photo of her kissing the filly. “I named her Follow No One. She’s gonna be FAST!”
Follow No One was fast enough to win two ordinary races in 12 starts, and she closed for third in her lone stakes attempt in the 2017 Alma North S. at Laurel. But she ended her career still eligible for a second-level allowance, and accordingly didn’t stand out as a broodmare prospect.
By that point, Sagamore was beginning to reduce its operations. And after another couple of years, Plank would give up the Thoroughbred business altogether, instead dedicating the farm to his whiskey enterprise, Sagamore Spirit.
In late 2018, Follow No One was offered at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, as part of the consignment of Upson Downs Farm, agent. The top bid of $85,000 did not meet her reserve price. Led out unsold, she found long-term residence at Upson Downs, which ended up purchasing her privately from Sagamore.
The relationship between Sagamore and Upson Downs wasn’t incidental. The erstwhile president of Sagamore’s now-defunct racing outfit, Hunter Rankin, is the son of Upson Downs proprietor R. Alex Rankin. Away from his life on the farm, the elder Rankin is Chairman of the Board of Churchill Downs Inc
. as well as the insurance firm Sterling G. Thompson.
When the 2019 breeding season rolled around, Follow No One visited a promising new stallion, Bolt d’Oro. Aside from his own accomplishments on the racetrack, Bolt d’Oro held a particular attraction for Hunter Rankin, as he told Chris McGrath in a feature for the Jan. 20, 2023, Thoroughbred Daily News: Bolt d’Oro is a half-brother to Sagamore’s aforementioned Global Campaign.
Although his best days were yet to come, Global Campaign was already advertising himself as a 2019 Kentucky Derby hopeful. Unfortunately, he grabbed a quarter so badly when fifth in the Fountain of Youth (G2) that he was knocked off the trail. But with time, he lived up to his connections’ lofty opinion of him.
Follow No One delivered her Bolt d’Oro colt on Feb. 6, 2020. The dark bay was a playful type who egged his paddock buddies on.
Word on the farm was that he was the “instigator of his herd,” summed up Adrianna Lynch. While she knew him well in his yearling days, she learned about his early months from her colleagues at Upson Downs.
“He would unsuspectingly walk up to one of the others and bump them, bite on their halters, or rear up to try and get them to play with him,” Lynch relayed. “And once he did, the rest of the group would all get riled up and join in.”
Lynch initially worked with Follow No One and her ensuing foal of 2021, a filly by Frosted. Once she began caring for Follow No One’s Bolt d’Oro yearling, the similarity was striking.
“When I went to the other side of the farm and saw that he was pretty much a carbon copy of her physically, I was instantly drawn to him. Then once I was around him more, I came to realize that he was just like his mom.”
A quick learner, the colt was quite personable, with his own endearing idiosyncrasies.
“After he would eat, like clockwork he would scratch his butt up against his feed tub,” Lynch said. “There was a phase where he would pop his lips for no reason – it was the absolute funniest thing. He also did this thing where if he had his head over your shoulder, and you were petting him, that sometimes he would try and wrap his whole head around you.”
Lynch loved her time helping the colt prep for his big day in the sales ring at Keeneland September. Her responsibilities included parading him for prospective buyers to inspect – an important assessment that can make or break a sale.
“At the sale, I got to show him a few times to learn the ropes of being a show person,” Lynch recalled, “and I was so insanely nervous to a point that I was trembling and I whispered to him ‘Please take care of me, Follow. It’s just like we did at home,’ and he showed like an angel, which could very much be just him just being a generally good smart horse, but I would like to believe he listened to me!”
The colt attracted the attention of owner Al Gold’s team of advisors, and his agent, Joe Hardoon, purchased him for $200,000. The same team behind 2022 Kentucky Derby competitor Cyberknife had unearthed another one.
Like Cyberknife, Instant Coffee received his early education from Susan Montanye, who operates SBM Training and Sales in Ocala, Florida. But unlike the notoriously exuberant Cyberknife
, Instant Coffee was a mellow customer at every stage.
“He was very unassuming, a quiet horse in the barn,” Montanye said.
“Anyone could ride him. He went through the motions and did everything right.”
While others might have been bigger specimens, Instant Coffee had a willing attitude.
“Whatever you asked him to do, he did it,” Montanye noted. “He never said no; he always said yes.
“He wasn’t a great big horse, but he had an awful lot of heart and try.”
That admirable trait has been in evidence on the racetrack. Sent to trainer Brad Cox’s Keeneland string last spring, Instant Coffee rallied to win first time out at the boutique Saratoga meeting on Sept. 3. His only loss was a fourth, from far back, in his stakes and two-turn debut in the Breeders’ Futurity
(G1). Instant Coffee didn’t have quite as much ground to make up in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club
(G2) and the Jan. 21 Lecomte
(G3), and he rolled to victory in both.
Lynch was at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Jockey Club. When reuniting with Instant Coffee, she found that he had the same feed tub routine. And he still tries to wrap his head around you.
Those are reminders that some things endure amid incessant change. The old Sagamore legacy, through Native Dancer, is encoded in the breed. We might call him the “Ghost of Sagamore Past.” If Instant Coffee can win the Derby as a Sagamore-bred from a defunct operation, would that make him the Ghost of Sagamore Present? Might we look for a Ghost of Sagamore Yet to Come?
Instant Coffee as a newborn by Upson Downs Farm
Yearling photos by Adrianna Lynch