Frank Stronach arrived in Southern California Feb. 26 to begin a series of talks with people in the racing industry about what he calls racing’s “broken business model.” He plans to meet with horsemen’s groups March 1 and propose a racing charter of rights so that racetracks, owners, and trainers can be partners.
On Feb. 27, a day when Santa Anita had to cancel its program due to torrential rain, Stronach sat in the track’s FrontRunner restaurant and discussed issues plaguing California’s racing industry. Though he acknowledged that Santa Anita’s main track needs replacing, he has not yet decided what he feels would be the best replacement surface.
Stronach talked about a dirt surface as well as a different type of surface used in Austria. He suggested trying it out on Santa Anita’s training track, but he insisted that racing must first address bigger problems.
“The primary reason I wanted to come out was to interface with people—horse owners, trainers, government officials—to say that the business model of the present-day racing industry is outdated,” said Stronach. “It doesn’t work.
“I am out here to plead with the horse community. We’ve got to change things. I would do everything I can for racing to remain in California. I can’t do it alone. The horse community has to help.”
Stronach said he plans to identify the things he feels are wrong with the industry, and said he is eager to hear ideas from others.
“The basic thing that’s wrong is that it’s not free enterprise,” he said. “When the government tells you when you’re allowed to open up your store and what products to sell, then you’ve got a problem. Then they become an operator. We believe very strongly that as a business we should be allowed to open up our store when we think we’ll get the most customers.”
Stronach declined to go into specifics before he had a chance to talk with horse racing groups. However, he mentioned dates, twilight racing, and which simulcast signals a track can bring in as areas to discuss.
“I fully understand that for the privilege (of running a racetrack) that they would expect you to run a certain amount of days,” Stronach said. “Free enterprise means the rules are the same for everybody. Free enterprise means that business can make a decision to cater to the customers.”
Secondly, and of equal importance to Stronach, is his proposal of a partnership among racetracks, owners, and trainers.
“I will bring forward what I call a racing charter of rights,” he said. “I have experienced it myself. Sometimes my trainer couldn’t get stalls because I was a little outspoken. We do not want to hold a heavy stick over owners and trainers. I’m saying, ‘You the owners are our partners.’ In essence, I’m pleading with the horsemen, ‘Let us make the most money we can,’ always within a legal framework, of course. But the racing charter of rights would guarantee the owners half the profits.”
Stronach added that he wants to ensure that money is also spent on the backside, to help backstretch employees with such things as health care and housing.
The next step in Stronach’s plan is to talk with government officials.
“We must sit down, and we must bring about change,” he said. “Treat racing like a regular business. If you make money, we pay taxes like any other company. We are not asking for any money. We are just saying, ‘Take the chains off our hands.’ Let the better operators succeed.”
Another reason Stronach visited Southern California was to examine Santa Anita’s main track.
“I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback,” he said. “I never liked synthetic tracks. But most people are good people, and they all wanted to do the best to get the safest racing surface.
“I think with a dirt track we could create a relative safe environment. But it’s an ongoing idea. Can you make it safer yet, safer for the horses and, number one, safer for the people—the jockeys and the exercise riders.
“The final analysis is, if we are able to arrive on a framework that is based on free enterprise, then I would be willing to invest again. I cannot put money in over and over and over again if I know the model doesn’t work. I want to make it clear—I’m not threatening. I’m pleading. I’m praying.”
Stronach said he hopes to provoke people’s minds during his discussions with horsemen.
“The first step is to think about it,” he said. “What can we do collectively to improve racing?”