Stronach's work is true labor of love

May 15, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IF LITTLE has changed in the two years since Magna Entertainment Corp. paid $117 million to own horse racing in Maryland, Frank Stronach said there's a reason.

The racing magnate made $53 million in salary and commissions from Magna International Inc. last year. He is one of America's top breeders. He's not exactly twiddling his thumbs, waiting for Annapolis to decide.

"I don't want to get involved in politics. We want to run a good ship. If we would have gotten a clear signal in Maryland as to what's ahead, we would move forward. But the signal is not very clear. I don't want to point fingers, and my position has not changed. Slots in the long run are not salvation. But in the interim, it would help," he said.

Slots or no slots, the Preakness stays at Pimlico. Slots or no slots, Pimlico will be rebuilt. Slots or no slots, Stronach is adamant: "I'm committed," he said.

"Slots or not, we will rejuvenate. With slots, it will change the configuration of the new Pimlico. Pimlico will always be around. The Preakness will always be at Pimlico. We have plans. We're going to make a brand new Pimlico. We have to widen the track. It's way too narrow. We need a little wider turf track, too. Pimlico is one of the most important venues in racing. It has a classic race. It has tradition."

And this is how the cult of Frank Stronach grows.

One phone conversation and he has the spiel to make you a believer.

Thirty-eight minutes talking to a horse-loving industrialist with more money than God and you're hooked.

He's so convincing, he can even try and lift you out of the moral quagmire of slots, making the money-eating machines seem an almost benign accessory to the greater good.

"I had to do a lot of soul-searching. Do I want to be involved with gambling? I started in my garage and built a company that now has 80,000 employees worldwide. We supply all car companies in the world with parts. Some of what we make comes from factories in Maryland. We're not newcomers to Maryland. We have 400 employees there, and we want to increase that," Stronach said.

"So I searched my soul and wondered: What do I want to do with gambling? But my whole life is a bit of a gamble. The lottery is a taxation of the poor. The stock exchange for day traders is nothing but gambling. Horse racing can provide jobs. There can be spin-offs. So my conscience was at peace. We put an emphasis on education, on campaigns that warn people, `Don't gamble with grocery money,' " he said.

Magna has owned Maryland tracks nearly two years, and still Stronach can freshly deliver his ideas on his brave new world. It's not a pitch as much as a social and economic treatise.

For his shareholders, a financial boon in the horse racing industry would be good. Rejuvenated tracks would be good for the economic development of nearby locales.

"The problem with the industry is that government runs it like a monopoly. Level the playing field," he said.

By now, Stronach's company owns 15 tracks, including Santa Anita and Gulfstream.

Yesterday, the eve of the 129th Preakness at Pimlico, Stronach took a detour to his other Maryland holding, Laurel Park. The Triple Crown race is the jewel around which Stronach wants to showcase Maryland racing, but it's not all that's on his agenda.

He wanted to inspect and show off his new toys - or, rather, inventions: new slot machine-like pari-mutuel machines. He took a handful of Maryland racing commissioners to see the future.

Since Stronach, 71, seeks to revolutionize the horse racing industry, he figures it will take every ounce of his creativity and vision, which, considering what he has already done for the car parts business, is plentiful.

Do not mistake the phrase "car parts." We're not talking about air filters or oil pans here. To say that Stronach's Magna International, a multinational company that just posted $5 billion in sales - for the first quarter of 2004 - makes car parts is a little like saying Babe Ruth was a decent hitter.

Stronach's company engineers and assembles all-wheel drive systems, modules and complete vehicles. Stronach is Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds all in one. He is a capitalist slugger who, ever since opening his one-man tool shop as a hardworking Austrian immigrant to Canada 50 years ago, is the second coming of Ross Perot - only with better ears, voice and social agenda.

Like Perot, Stronach even ran for top office in Canada in 1988 - as a liberal. But now it's horse racing, not Canada's ailing economy, that Stronach wants to reinvent.

New tracks, new simulcast signals, new virtual off-track betting emporiums, new entertainment "racinos," which marry horse racing and other forms of gambling. Hence, the trip to Laurel, where prototypes for three new betting machines were being inspected.

"They are pari-mutuel machines that are interactive. They're like slot machines, but for betting on horses," Stronach said.

"Slot machines are purely a game of chance. In horse racing, you can tilt the odds in your favor. These machines have everything in there. They spin, make noise, everything. They're fantastic."

A business of love, he calls his dedication to horse racing. The two words (business and love) together are interesting.

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