Good thing comes to he who waited

Stronach's decision to skip Derby pays off with big victory

Owner

May 21, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The smile sat beneath the thinning gray hair on Frank Stronach's head, sharing space with the red veins that lined his cheeks.

The smile, on display yesterday after his horse, Red Bullet, won the Preakness, said one thing: Nothing beats vindication, especially when it comes with one of the jewels of the Triple Crown. It was Stronach's second victory of the type, after Touch Gold's 1997 Belmont Stakes triumph."What went through my mind was that I'd made the right decision because I always knew this was a great horse," Stronach, 67, said of the moment his horse crossed the finish line, 3 3/4 lengths ahead of the second-place finisher, Kentucky Derby winner and alleged juggernaut Fusaichi Pegasus.

Red Bullet and "Pegasus" swapped places after being in the 1-2 positions on April 15 at the Wood Memorial in New York. On that day, Stronach and trainer Joe Orseno watched their horse falter in the latter moments, with the colt losing 16 pounds by the time the race was over.

The Kentucky Derby only comes once, but the Stronach group decided it was something that a weakened Red Bullet needed to skip.

Half an hour after the Wood Memorial, Stronach said his heart said, "`Gee, it would be nice to go to the Derby,' but my head said, `No way.'""Give Frank Stronach all the credit you can," Orseno said. "It was a tough decision to pass on the Kentucky Derby, but we knew we had a horse with a lot of talent and we had to pick our spot."

Stronach, a native of Austria, always has known how to pick his spots, and left his home country in his early 20s. "I wanted to see the world," he said.

He started as a dishwasher at a Toronto hospital, then eventually parlayed his involvement in the tool-and-die business into a billion-dollar empire driven by an auto parts company, Magna International.

He lives in Switzerland but has several breeding farms across North America as well as racetracks, including Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and, most recently, Bay Meadows in Northern California.

His penchant for purchasing tracks prompted tongue-in-cheek speculation that he would try his hand at running Pimlico. "Ah, I've just been kidding a little, you know," he said.

With more than 60,000 employees stretched across several industries, Stronach delegates considerable responsibility for the breeding operation to his 31-year-old son, Andy.

Andy Stronach said his father's strength has been his willingness to let people do their jobs. Orseno echoed that thought.

"I do my job," Orseno said. "He knows that I care, and he really appreciates what I do."

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