Frank Stronach, John Gaines, and Ed Friendly were the talk of the racing industry during the first week of January, even though the news should have been all about Tiznow, Kona Gold, and Lemon Drop Kid. Somehow, the announcement of finalists for Horse of the Year and other Eclipse Award divisions was overshadowed by the ongoing differences among Stronach and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and its most vocal supporters.
Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns seven racetracks and is in the process of purchasing an account wagering system and other racing assets in Pennsylvania, has had a very public battle with the NTRA, recently pulling all his tracks out of the organization.
Gaines, the creator of the Breeders' Cup, has called on Stronach to reverse his decision. Gaines spoke bluntly about Stronach in a speech given to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club in Lexington on Jan. 2, comparing him to the fiesty Texas billionaire Ross Perot. "Both men are utterly, absolutely convinced of their rightness," Gaines said.
Friendly, the founder of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and a founding board member of the NTRA, wrote a strongly worded open letter to Stronach and published it as an advertisement on the back page of Daily Racing Form of Jan. 7. In it, Friendly said to the Magna chairman, "You are hell-bent to control racing and are trying to destroy anything that stands in your way."
Stronach, who has said he wants to be remembered as a person who did good things for racing, was not happy with the public criticism, saying it was "below the belt." In the end, there is a common thread that runs through all three of these powerful men.
Gaines showed through the creation of the Breeders' Cup how people in the breeding industry who competed against each other throughout the year could work together and build an event that became the sport's championship day. More than 20 years later as racing lost market share to other forms of gambling, Gaines, with advertising executive Fred Pope, once again formed a critical mass -- this time by convincing more than 100 powerful owners and breeders (including Stronach and Friendly) to put up $50,000 each to fund the startup of the National Thoroughbred Association. The owner-driven NTA was the fire that lit up several other organizations and led to the founding of the NTRA.
It's doubtful there would have been an NTA were it not for Ed Friendly's insistence on wresting control of horsemen's decisions from the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which was widely perceived as a trainers' organization. With Friendly the driving force, the TOC was formed in 1994, and it has been a strong advocate for the horse owner.
Like Gaines and Friendly, Stronach has not been happy with racing's status quo. That's why he has invested so much of his own money to buy racetracks. Simply put, he thinks he has a better idea. So did Gaines and Friendly when they left their imprint on the Thoroughbred industry. All three are independent thinkers, persuasive, and skeptical of "old boy networks."
The public fighting involving Stronach and the NTRA supporters has not painted a very pretty picture of racing, especially as it attempts to compete with stronger, more organized, and better-financed sports.
Following a week of turmoil in this industry, Stronach met on the evening of Jan. 7 with a number of NTRA board members, and a statement issued the next day indicated real progress between the two sides. Let's hope that progress continues. Because without speculating on who may come out of this knock-down, drag-out battle the victor, should the in-fighting continue the loser, unfortunately, will be the industry itself.