Shortly after winning the Queen’s Plate with Shaman Ghost, billionaire Canadian horseman and entrepreneur Frank Stronach sat down in Aurora, ON for a wide-ranging interview about turning Gulfstream Park into a horse theme park, breeding better cattle and his renewed focus on horse racing.
A bronze maquette of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker sits behind Frank Stronach in the corner of a conference room at The Stronach Group’s headquarters in Aurora, ON. Covering a large part of the table is a model of Gulfstream Park in Florida, one of six racetracks he owns. On the video screen is a live camera view of the 11-story (34-metre-high) statue of Pegasus trampling a dragon under construction at Gulfstream. It is “the largest bronze sculpture in the world,” Stronach said proudly of the $30 million project that sprung from his vibrant mind and makes cars and pedestrians look like crickets by comparison. He also has a burgeoning electric bicycle business and his latest pet project — a 90,000-acre livestock ranch in Florida home to 8,000 cattle and counting — is his attempt to produce meat without hormones or antibiotics that is slaughtered in the most humane, stress-free way possible.
To put it mildly, Stronach, the billionaire horseman and industrialist that founded the massive Magna auto-parts company, has made an art — and fortune — from the ability to think big.
Stronach will turn 83 on Sept. 6, but he looks at least two decades younger, perhaps owing in part to an entrepreneurial mind that seems to be constantly humming as suggested by the playful, yet engaged, look in his eyes and fingers that are constantly twirling a pencil around a three-sided plastic ruler.
It is eight days after Shaman Ghost gave Stronach his third Queen’s Plate victory and Stronach is in a thoughtful mood, just as he said he was on July 5, the moment the homebred son of his beloved stallion Ghostzapper — who is a son of Stronach’s second Plate winner, Awesome Again (1997) — crossed the wire at Woodbine in the 156th edition of the Plate.
“I think the great thing about that Plate win was it was Andy and Frank together making a decision to do the mating,” said Dermot Carty, the highly respected stallion manager at Stronach’s Adena Springs North just around the corner from The Stronach Group in Aurora. “I’ve been friends with Andy for 29 years and the same with Frank. But a father and son, to see the two of them together as one was just a beautiful thing… It was family. For the first time in a long, long time, Frank was a bit lost for words. He was very emotional on that day.”
Though Adena Springs spares no expense and is one of the sport’s biggest breeding operations, Stronach said he hasn’t had too many stakes stars in recent years and admits to making mistakes with his equine empire — a combination of having too many horses and being distracted with global business ventures and politics in his native Austria where he started his own party named Team Stronach.
Stronach retired as chairman of Magna in 2011 and gave up his voting shares in the related real estate company, MI Developments, in exchange for ownership of The Stronach Group’s racetracks, AmTote International and the wagering company Xpressbet. He now holds the title of founder and honourary chairman of The Stronach Group.
“I’m trying to cut back and focus a little less on other things and trying to focus a little more on horses again,” he said. Proof of that is at Adena Springs North where an exquisite $7 million stallion barn is home to nine studs and is part of a $30 million operation.
Stronach said his missteps in the game and having, relatively speaking, something of a dry spell of late, has kept him grounded.
“I count my blessings when I have a good one and I am very happy about it. You constantly try to search where the weakness is and try to correct it, because you’ve got to realize when you’re breeding and racing thoroughbreds, sometimes you can’t have rubber-lined wall stalls. There will be some accidents,” he said. “You’ve got to pay a lot of attention to details, but you still have to have a portion of luck.”
Despite being one of the biggest investors in the game, Stronach said what makes horse racing great, “is little guys can do well and come up and get a big horse… Money alone cannot do it. That’s what I like about it, because at one time I mucked out every stall. I foaled everything. I was hoping for the big horse. I had those dreams. Other people have to have those dreams, too.”
He said the reason he made Adena North, Adena Kentucky and Adena South in Florida exquisite showplace farms was primarily to provide a safe, healthy environment for his horses. But it goes deeper than that.
“Naturally, I like to have great esthetics, too,” he said, smiling. “The advantage is it suits my soul. I don’t want to have a metal roof. Most of the places I’ve worked have metal on top. But when you go in, you feel it, you breathe it. You breathe differently.
“Some of our barns are like working in a chapel. It suits my soul. I can reflect.”
From Depression to cowboy dreams
By now, the Magna Man’s story is well known. He was born to working class parents in the midst of the Great Depression in a small town in southeastern Austria located at the foot of the Alps. World War II marked much of Stronach’s youth. Shortly after the war ended, his mother took him to a factory to start his apprenticeship as a tool and die maker. He immigrated to Canada in 1954 at the age of 21 with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He worked washing dishes and peeling potatoes in a hospital kitchen for a time and in 1956 started his tool and die business in Toronto. He worked hard, but dreamed large.
“For five years, I worked 14 hours every day, including Saturday and Sunday. After five years when I sort of made it a bit, I thought it would be nice to have a horse like in the cowboy movies… I looked in the papers for riding horses for sale. I went to the first farm I called. He said he had something, so I bought the first horse I saw. I was riding the next day. I was brilliant. I held on by the ears,” Stronach said, laughing about the horse named Tanjo that he purchased for $300. “I found it very exciting. I needed an equalizer to being in industry and metal parts, plastic and working with thousandths of an inch. This was organic, something living. I needed that.”
He quickly followed that riding horse up with a few racehorses. His first was a chestnut named Miss Scooter that cost $700. So began a thoroughbred empire that has produced 18 Sovereign Awards and 12 Eclipse Awards, including a record eight Breeder of the Year awards. Stronach was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame as a builder in 2002.
His list of champions is too long to mention in full, but started with the amazing mare Glorious Song — the 1980 Sovereign Horse of the Year and the first Canadian-bred to earn $1 million — and runs through the likes of Belmont winner Touch Gold, Preakness winner Red Bullet, Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno, Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Perfect Sting, Grade 1 winner Golden Missile, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, Breeders Cup Classic and 2004 U.S. Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and his first Queen’s Plate winner, Basqueian, in 1994.
Leave the fish alone
Dermot Carty slows the minivan as he passes a huge pond near the new stallion barn at Adena Springs North.
“Is there fish in the pond?” he’s asked.
“Yes, big ones,” Carty said.
“So, do you and the crew ever fish?”
“No. Frank says, ‘Leave the fish alone. If you want to eat fish, go to the market and buy it.’”
In Frank Stronach’s world, even the fish are a protected species.
The Adena Springs Retirement Program that is based at Adena North perhaps best exemplifies his passion for animals.
“It does not take a lot of cost. You probably have a few hundred acres. We put a few sheds there. We make sure there are always good water lines and they can eat grass. We give them a natural environment,” Stronach said.
“That is only fair. You just can’t ship them away to the meat plant.”
Stronach said he struggled with his decision to start a cattle ranch for just that reason.
“I’ve done a lot of soul searching,” he said. “Should I be raising animals and killing them? I hesitated for quite awhile. But, the philosophy is there’s no pain to the cattle, no stress, no hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO.”
He has consulted with noted animal welfare expert Temple Grandin to make the operation as humane as possible. The theory is a lot of people eat meat and aren’t likely to stop. So, make the meat better.
“I think the middle class are more aware of what they eat. The old saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ I think we eat a lot of chemicals. I own supermarkets, too. So, I want the supermarkets to really sell healthy food. We would only sell meat that is produced on our farms.”
Stronach is also a big advocate of banning all race day medication.
“There are a lot of people that want race-day medication, want Lasix. I’m saying that if a horse is not sound then it should not be running,” he said.
Stronach is moving toward banning all race-day medication at his tracks — Gulfstream, Santa Anita, the Maryland Jockey Club (Pimlico and Laurel Park), Golden Gate Fields and Portland Meadows — as a way of protecting the horses and improving customer confidence in his product.
“In any business you have to demonstrate you run a straight ship,” he said.
He’s also trying to turn his racetracks into shrines to honour horses for their great contribution to human history.
At Gulfstream, in particular, Stronach is building something of a horse theme park complete with the gargantuan Pegasus statue, a water park, rides, restaurants, shops, condos, a hotel, pony trails and a museum.
“I want to entertain… I want to create a place where people say, ‘You have to see it,’” Stronach said. “What I’m trying to do is make the racetrack a very exciting place to go where you could honour the horses besides racing.
“Horses made a great contribution to the civilization of mankind. So, I’ve tried to show my gratitude, I’ve tried to show my luck to have had an Awesome Again, a Ghostzapper. When you syndicate them that’s a very big number… So, we pay our debt to the horses.”
As for the treatment of his own horses, Stronach insists on the best, both for his soul and theirs.
“He has a love for farming and he has a love for beautiful things and there’s very few people I have met in my life that have the vision to build — and he’s very, very visual — to build something that’s very eye appealing,” Carty said.
He is standing outside the stone, cross-shaped stallion barn that just needs some minor finishing touches to be completed. Aurora is spread out all around.
“When you look around at what he’s created, it’s just beautiful,” Carty said. “It’s not just a building thrown up, there’s a lot of thought gone into this. Look at the beauty and the stone… In this particular area we decided to build a showpiece. I guess we’re a little vain about it, but it’s a thing of beauty.
“Inside is good old fashioned Canadian pine. The white deal, as we call it. Frank was obsessed with that wood when he saw the tall pines up north and he saw what came out.”
Carty and Stronach’s son, Andy, traveled the world together — South Africa, Europe, all over the United States — over many years to come up with the design of the barn that is insulated for Canadian winters, but able to be open in all directions for maximum ventilation.
“Even if a door gets closed, it’s complete ventilation all the way through. This is an idea that came out of South Africa because of the heat. The roof is very, very high. We actually can recirculate the air. You never feel the sense of claustrophobia,” Carty said.
“I think this is one of the most unique buildings in the world for stallions because it’s very pleasing to the eye, but it’s very caring for the horse. Horses are very, very happy here. They don’t act very aggressively,” Carty said, adding that stallioneer Rob Rafferty is particularly skilled at keeping stallions calm.
Carty then proves it by having each of the stallions brought out for just two visitors. “You see the class of them when they’re coming out,” Carty said proudly as one stud after another struts out of the barn.
“One thing we use here is we use bits when we show stallions or we breed with them. The bit signifies that they’re either going to be shown, or they’re going to be bred. Once they come through here and these doors are closed, they know it’s work time. The chain over the nose is not my style. It’s not in keeping with proper care,” Carty said. “We take a little extra effort. It takes 10 minutes more to put the bit on. But when they come out they are absolutely bang on… I do take pride in the way these guys look after things because without them, we’re nobody.”
The nine stallions at Adena North have come from around the world — Ireland (Sligo Bay, North Light), Japan (Silent Name), Brazil (Einstein) and the United States (Giant Gizmo, Milwaukee Brew, Rookie Sensation, Singing Saint and Wilko, who is currently standing in Alberta) — and form one of the most formidable lineups of stallions in Canada.
Given the massive scale of the operation, Carty said the goal is to try to break even, which isn’t easy. But, take Adena North out of the picture and Carty said the impact on Canadian racing would be devastating, “because I don’t think there’s anyone else that has stood up with that kind of money.”
Stronach said the economics of racing don’t make a lot of sense, but in his case, owning racetracks helps.
“To have horses, you need some big horses. One alone would not even do. When you have 50 horses race or 60 horses race, you need a couple of Grade 1 winners if you want to make a little bit of money. So, the fact of life is, racing horses is expensive. Very seldom does anybody make money in it,” he said.
So, why do it?
“It’s a business of love. I enjoy it. It’s always the search for that great horse,” Stronach said. “I can buy a new airplane, but I find it’s just a machine. But a nice horse, now that’s different.”