Magna Entertainment is borderline dysfunctional and many of Stronach's woes are self-inflicted, but with a power surge briefly derailing Gulfstream and the Southern California monsoons threatening to take Santa Anita 20,000 leagues under the sea, the mercurial mogul should consider starting the day from the other side of the bed. Murphy's Law is passe. Stronach's Law--meaning whatever can go wrong, will go wrong--is the more contemporary synonym.
Meantime, Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board and the father of the synthetic-track movement in the state, cracks wise in public. "Welcome to the all-weather state," Shapiro said from the podium at the Eclipse Awards dinner. "As someone familiar with mandates, I mandate that you all have fun this evening." It was Shapiro and three other commissioners who mandated that all the major thoroughbred tracks in California install synthetic tracks by January of 2008.
Waiting until an 11th hour, Santa Anita signed on with Cushion Track Footing, the British-based company that had already put in a track at Hollywood Park. That rustling of papers in the background comes from Magna's lawyers, who are no doubt throwing together early briefs that will launch a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Cushion Track.
By the time Magna and Santa Anita get to the courtroom, the cupboards may be bare. Cushion Track, which agreed to install its surface at three tracks in Australia at a cost of $18 million, recently said that Corbould Park, which was supposed to be up and running late last year, now won't have its new track ready until mid-February. The rock base didn't work, and had to be torn up and replaced.
The clouds over Stronach parted recently when he picked up two Eclipse Awards, for top breeder and for Ginger Punch, his filly who was voted best older female on dirt. Ginger Punch also won the Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream. But a couple of days of whoopee does not a fiscal year make. The winter months are critical for debt-ridden Magna, whose two bellwether tracks are Santa Anita and Gulfstream. But at Gulfstream, where the slot-machine part of the operation is hardly booming, only modest returns can be expected, and Santa Anita's balance sheet will be stretched to the last decimal point if it is to recover from the Cushion Track fiasco.
All the while, the whirlwind changes in the executive suite go on unabated. Just this week, Stronach hired Scott Borgemenke, a former chairman of the Ohio Horse Racing Commission, as executive vice president of racing for Magna. I am one of these guys who never throws away a business card, which means that I have an impressive collection of cards with the names of former Magna employees on them. There are enough cards for a full deck. There might even be enough to paper the walls of my office. For Borgemenke and other new hires at Magna, it ought to be a rule of thumb not to have business cards printed until after six months on board.
The man at the top is undaunted. Stronach said something at the Eclipse Awards about "returning racing to its glory days."
Working for him might be lucrative, but it's a thankless gig. The best description I've heard of Stronach is that 10 fresh ideas pop into his head every day: One is worth pursuing, one is marginal and the other eight don't have a chance. But the people around him must chase down all 10, and report back.
In the late fall of 1999, several of us were leaving Santa Anita one day after an afternoon of racing at the Oak Tree meet. Someone made a reference to the approaching millennium. Stronach, who was part of the group, stopped in his tracks.
"Yes," he said. "The millennium. December 31st, sure. We'll be running, right? We could run the races right up to midnight. Maybe a day-night double card. Not a lot of races in the evening, just a few to get us to midnight and 2000. Yes, we should look into that, right?"
Eyes rolled. Nobody said anything. After Stronach moved on, Stuart Zanville, who was Santa Anita's PR guy at the time, said: "Who's going to be the first one to tell him that we don't have lights?"
"That won't stop him," one of the others said. "He'll tell somebody to put 'em in."
Since I arrived in California in 1982, there's never been a governor who's been sympathetic to racing. Not even Gray Davis, who worked for the state racing board before he moved up the ladder. There was hope, after Davis was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded him, that the game might finally benefit. Stronach and Schwarzenegger sounded alike, their accents reflecting their Austrian roots. In fact, they were born in neighboring villages, and Schwarzenegger's parents were buried in Stronach's hometown.
However, there is a 15-year gap in their ages, and the first meeting between Schwarzenegger and Stronach, a few years ago, did not go well, according to people who were there. Schwarzenegger, like his predecessors, is not enamored with racing. On Feb. 5, the California primary election will include several issues that, if passed, will substantially increase the number of slot machines at four Indian casinos in the state. Schwarzenegger is backing the propositions. In California, slot machines are not as linked to the survival of racing as they are in other states, but it would be fatuous to say that slot machines don't matter. Of course they matter. So does a week without rain at Santa Anita.