A standing room only crowd of over 200 people turned out on Tuesday evening in Arcadia, Calif., to hear Frank Stronach discuss his vision for the future of California racing while bitterly complaining about the way his daughter, Belinda Stronach, has performed as chairman of The Stronach Group – the family-owned company he founded that owns nearby Santa Anita Park, along with Gulfstream Park in Florida and Pimlico and Laurel Park in Maryland.
The talk took place at the Embassy Suites hotel, just down Huntington Drive from Santa Anita. Stronach previewed the event by taking out an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times to publish what he called an “An Open Letter from Frank Stronach to All Horse Lovers in the State of California.”
“They don't want to have racing. They want to sell the place (Santa Anita),” Stronach said of his daughter – president of The Stronach Group since 2011 – and the top racing division manager he hired, chief operating officer Tim Ritvo.
He gave no substantiation of the claim.
Stronach is embroiled in a lawsuit he filed last October in Ontario, Canada, against his daughter, alleging mismanagement of the company's assets and family trusts. He is seeking to regain control of the company. Belinda Stronach filed a counterclaim in which she detailed hundreds of millions of dollars she alleged her father has lost in what the court filings said were “passion projects” and personal expenses.
“My son, my wife, we are united,” said Stronach, “and Belinda is on the outside. Okay? We feel the court will correct that in due time.”
Stronach, 86, who currently has no active role in managing Santa Anita or any of The Stronach Group's assets, said he wants to put the racetracks – or at least the portion of the properties devoted to racing – in a trust and allow horsemen to operate racing for a minimum of 20 years.
He was supported in that proposal by horse owner William Deburgh, who sat to one side of Stronach during the two-hour event that included over an hour of questions from the audience of owners, trainers, breeders, fans and local residents.
A number of television crews were on hand as well, not surprising given the negative publicity Santa Anita has received in recent months over the spike in equine fatalities during the opening months of the winter meeting.
“On Saturday, Frank called me and told me what he wanted to accomplish for our industry,” Deburgh said. “One of the greatest problems we have in horse racing is no certainty for the future, and without certainty we cannot plan for the long term. As a consequence, we have not been able to make the changes or put in place the resources to support our trainers and to make racing as safe as possible.
“Most of us in this room tonight have heard the age-old expression, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,'” Deburgh continued. “What Mr. Stronach is proposing is the greatest opportunity our industry has ever been given. It can be the most incredibly generous gift to the tens of thousands of people who depend on the industry for their livliehood. However, even when presented with a wonderful opportunity, our industry's leadership is inclined to focus on why the opportunity will not work. I say that everybody needs to put their differences aside and help make this happen.”
Seated on Stronach's left side was Ron Finley, an urban farmer who calls himself the “Gangsta Gardener” and has worked with Stronach on a proposal for Pimlico. “I first heard Ron on TED Talks,” Stronach said. Finley spoke briefly about his activities.
But most of the evening was focused on Stronach's desire to put The Stronach Group's racing assets in a trust while venting over his daughter's management of the company, saying that she has “soiled” the family's good name.
“I have achieved incredible things,” Stronach said while reviewing his personal history – coming to North America from Austria with $200 in his pocket and building an auto parts manufacturer in Canada, Magna International, that eventually employed 175,000 people.
Belinda Stronach, 52, served as CEO and vice chairman of Magna International and also was elected as a member of Canada's parliament.
A multiple Eclipse Award-winning breeder and owner, Frank Stronach began buying racetracks in 1998 with the purchase of Santa Anita through the publicly traded companies he ran. One of those companies, Magna Entertainment, filed for bankruptcy after all of the currently owned racetracks were purchased, with those properties then being transferred to another company he controlled, MI Developments. The Stronach Group obtained the racing properties in 2011 through a reorganization approved by MI Developments shareholders.
Stronach stepped down as The Stronach Group chairman to run for political office in Austria, passing the company's leadership baton to Belinda. He is now listed on the company website as honorary chairman.
“Control of the Stronach Group was manipulated,” he said. “I'm really the rightful owner.”
Horse owners and trainers in the audience seemed supportive of the concept of the tracks going into a trust for them to run, but some expressed frustration at the lack of details on how Stronach could make it happen, especially in light of the fact he no longer runs the company. In response to a question about whether he thinks he will win his legal battle to regain control, Stronach said, “I think I have better than a fighting chance.”
Stronach also spoke about the importance of medication reform, saying that he's worked with Reps. Paul Tonko and Andy Barr in support of the Horseracing Integrity Act legislation that has been reintroduced recently in Congress. “Horses are overmedicated,” he said.
Belinda Stronach also supports the federal legislation, but in the meantime – in the wake of the 23 racing and training fatalities at Santa Anita – has pushed through the most substantial safety and welfare reforms in the United States, putting California's medication regulations – with the exception of race-day Lasix, which is scheduled to be phased out beginning with 2-year-olds of 2020 – on par with those of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. She has also asked the California Horse Racing Board to regulate the use of whips so that they can only be used for safety or corrective steering.
The reforms were made following a public outcry and fears that a ballot initiative could put California horse racing out of business.
One owner in the audience, Gary Hartunian of Rockingham Ranch, disagreed with Frank Stronach's call for medication reform. “The horses need to be medicated,” he said. They gotta have whips.”
Hartunian asked Stronach if owners and trainers should boycott Santa Anita until he can wrest control from his daughter.
“Why don't we just shut the track down and you just compensate everybody while we're doing it,” Hartunian said.
Audience members who brought up the equine fatalities and expressed sympathy with animal rights organizations were shouted down during the question and answer portion by others in the audience.
One audience member who said she met recently with elected officials in Arcadia said the fears of development of the property are overblown, in part because segments of the track are designated historic landmarks. “The city council believes that Santa Anita is the most important thing they have in Arcadia,” the audience member said. “And if they have to, they will go to the state of California and make the entire property an historic landmark so it can never be developed and it will always be a racetrack.”
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