Op/Ed: Time to Show Frank Stronach Some Love

Frank Stronach | Horsephotos


I may not have written it, but I certainly thought it: I was no Frank Stronach fan. I shed a tear when he tore down the old Gulfstream Park, a wonderful facility that was home to some of my fondest memories as a racing fan and journalist. I didn't understand his revolving-door philosophy when it came to the hiring and firing of executives and, like a lot of others, I had a good laugh at his expense at some of his follies. Anyone remember those Horse Wizard machines at Laurel? I imagine Stronach hopes that you don't.

Maybe I was wrong about Stronach all along. Maybe he's changed, learned from his mistakes. Maybe it is a little of both. Whatever it is, I have come to appreciate him and consider him to be a great asset to the sport, a sport that is very lucky to have him.

Here's what separates Stronach from virtually every other person or company currently running a racetrack: he loves the sport and he's trying really hard to make it better.

As for everyone else, they're either sitting back and counting the millions coming in from the slot machines or sitting back and complaining that they don't have casino money. Too many either don't care about racing and/or have given up on the sport.

Yes, Stronach has a casino at Gulfstream, but it's not an overwhelmingly successful one and you can tell that racing is his No. 1 priority and not the slots room. Yes, Laurel and Pimlico have been helped greatly by a cut that goes from casinos elsewhere in Maryland to Maryland racing. But that hasn't caused Stronach to sit on his butt. Rather, he's been working with his team there to make his tracks, particularly Laurel, much better.

In just the last two weeks alone Stronach has unveiled two new ideas. He and his son, Andy, are behind the National Racing Club Sweepstakes at Portland Meadows and the elder Stronach last week announced his vision for a $12-million race in which 12 owners put up $1 million each in order to participate.

Are they good ideas or bad ideas? That's not the point. They are ideas and they have been generated by someone who is anything but complacent. Instead, Stronach is willing to experiment, oftentimes risking his own money, to come up with something that will give the sport of horse racing some energy and more promise for the future. You might think the Rainbow 6 at Portland Meadows with its two-furlong races and dreadfully inept horses is the dumbest idea to come out of Team Stronach yet. But how can you not respect Andy Stronach for putting up his own money to purchase the 100-some horses that were needed to make the experiment possible? Yes, they are all cheap horses, but the expense and effort to acquire them should not be underestimated and he'll never recoup all the money he must have spent.

Frank Stronach has even stopped firing general managers like he was bent on becoming racing's version of George Steinbrenner.

Stronach may have been the only person on the planet who would have turned over the reins of Gulfstream Park to Tim Ritvo. Ritvo had been a jockey and then a trainer and didn't have one second of experience when it came to racetrack management. When Ritvo was hired in 2010, it looked like another inexplicably weird move by Stronach that was doomed to fail. In hindsight, it was nothing short of sheer brilliance. Ritvo has been there for almost six years, isn't going anywhere and has done a masterful job running Gulfstream. Ritvo is good at his job because he, too, loves the sport and because he understands that the customer must come first.

In Keith Brackpool and his team, he has also put very capable, very knowledgeable people who have the key ingredient–they care about horse racing–in charge in California. Santa Anita's current management is stable and more than competent.

In Maryland, Stronach brought Sal Sinatra over from Parx, and every indication so far is that he is the right man for the job.

I still hate it that he tore down the old Gulfstream, a racetrack I loved. You could hop on a plane on the coldest, snowiest morning in the Northeast in February and make the third race, sit out by the paddock amongst glorious sunshine and then wander over to the box section where you could hang out and kibitz with old friends. Stronach replaced it with something I didn't like and still have some problems with, but have grown to understand. The old Gulfstream, as great as it was, was part of racing's past and the sport had to change. The new Gulfstream is all about the future and Stronach's vision. I think he did what he did because he hated to see everyone else in the sport sit around and do nothing.

I was guilty for way too long of not appreciating him, and I believe many in the sport are still doing just that. Maybe it's because he did get off to a rocky start, but he hasn't gotten nearly the credit he deserves for how hard he is trying or for his obvious passion for this sport.

So, if you happen to bump into him at Santa Anita, Gulfstream or anywhere else you might want to go up to him and just say “thank you.” I know I will.

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