Stronach takes reins

A breed apart in racing, brash Canadian billionaire adds Md. to 8-state stable

Restless, autocratic, entertaining

Horse Racing

July 16, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

For a horse racing outsider, Frank Stronach has spent a long time inside the sport.

The 69-year-old Canadian billionaire, whose Magna Entertainment Corp. announced yesterday plans to acquire Maryland's major thoroughbred racetracks, bought his first horse in 1961 for $700.

Today, he commands an equine empire with hundreds of horses on farms in Kentucky, Florida and Ontario and a chain of racetracks - 11 thoroughbred tracks bought or leased since 1998 - that collectively account for more than one out of every four dollars bet on thoroughbreds in this country. He has won just about every major award in the business, and some of its biggest races, including the Preakness.

So why are the lords of racing, who ordinarily fawn over success and money, so wary of him?

Because he can barely stand them. Time and time again, Stronach, who founded a tool-and-die shop and built it into an $11 billion-a-year transnational behemoth, has railed against the old-money elites who run racing.

"They are nice people and honest people, but collectively they have done a lousy job. The club just doesn't work. It never did," Stronach said in a stinging, 1997 critique of the nonprofit Ontario Jockey Club, on whose board he had served for two years.

"They screwed up a mono- poly," Stronach told the Toronto Sun.

The club, operator of Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, tossed Stronach off its board in a huff. "If Frank attended more board meetings and did less talking and more listening, he would be up to speed," jockey club executive David Willmot told the newspaper.

But Stronach was just warming up. A few years later, just as the industry began to unite behind the fledgling National Thoroughbred Racing Association, he led a mutiny of 22 racetracks out of the group. He said the association's structure - its board members appointed themselves - was better suited to a country club than a trade group and its collectivist strategies would stunt competition.

Again, the industry responded angrily. John Gaines, creator of the Breeders' Cup race series, publicly compared Stronach to Ross Perot, saying they both were "fascinated with power" and "utterly, absolutely convinced of their rightness."

Days later, Ed Friendly, founder of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, took out a full-page ad in the Daily Racing Form to say Stronach's "greed and zest for power outweighs what is good for racing."

"Your egomaniacal attitude is disruptive to the well-being of the industry," Friendly wrote. "You are hell-bent on controlling racing and are trying to destroy anything that stands in your way."

Stronach brushed off the barbs and said it was time for racing to enter the modern era of accountability to stakeholders and service to customers.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, faced with a major loss of its membership, relented. The NTRA board is now elected, and the group issued a statement vowing its "commitment to free enterprise." The breakaway tracks, which included Maryland's, rejoined. But it remains an uneasy detente.

The association and Stronach still disagree on key matters - chiefly the group's support for a cable television channel, TVG, that will compete with a satellite operation Magna is planning. But Magna and the NTRA are "working pretty well together," said NTRA executive director Tim Smith.

"What is undeniable is the scope of his investment" in racing, Smith said.

Outspoken, yet private

Acquaintances describe Stronach as restless and autocratic, but entertaining. A tall man with a thick Austrian accent and white hair, he has strong opinions about most every topic, from politics to pedigrees.

"All of us would hope to have the energy level at his age," said Smith, of the NTRA.

Terrence Collier, the director of marketing for Fasig-Tipton Co., a Lexington, Ky.-based horse auctioneer, has known Stronach for more than 30 years.

"Frank truly hasn't changed very much. He was pretty charismatic. You always sensed there was something different about him. He was always a big- picture guy," Collier said.

"He is a very decisive guy, clear-cut, clear-thinking guy. He listens to his team and gets their input. Then he makes his own decisions and goes with that. He is quite autocratic, and that is one of his strengths," Collier said.

"I know there has been a lot of criticism because he has not gone along with the racing establishment. I don't think it's necessary for all of us to agree with everything he is doing. He is trying to get from A to Z. He is committed to his vision."

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