Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, will be hosting a tent at Preakness for the first time this year. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Few would think to transform a Preakness party tent into an Old English hunting lodge, complete with wooden beams, equestrian memorabilia, gleaming chandeliers and touches from a former interior designer for Ralph Lauren.
But few are Belinda Stronach, a Canadian businesswoman, socialite, heiress and former government official. The president of the Stronach Group — the leading owner and operator of horse tracks in the United States, including Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park — has brought some of her star quality to the Preakness this year in the form of a VIP chalet.
"The atmosphere is sort of like Soho House meets Ralph Lauren," said Stronach. "We wanted to keep the tradition, the Maryland tradition, because we know people here love the heritage of the Preakness, and at the same time we wanted to bring in some modern elements."
The creation is just a sliver of Stronach's level of glitz and fame.
As Don Martin, Canadian TV host and writer of the 2007 biography "Belinda: The Political and Private Life of Belinda Stronach," put it, she is "the perfect storm of celebrity and politician."
Stronach was previously CEO of Magna International Inc., the multibillion-dollar automotive company her father founded. She served two terms in Canada's House of Commons, where she pushed for more women in Canada's Parliament, advocated for equal rights and fought to cast a light on the experience of women in politics.
Yet she was defined as Canada's "It Girl" during her two terms from 2004 to 2008, with her "big money, her sex appeal and guys on the orbit," Martin said.
"It looked like she was going to run for the leadership of the [Liberal] party," Martin said.
She made headlines for leaving the Conservatives to join the Liberals. And she made headlines for her relationships. She is divorced from Donald J. Walker, now the Magna CEO, and Olympic gold-medal speed skater Johann Olav Koss. She dated former Conservative Party leader Peter MacKay and the now-retired NHL player Tie Domi. Rumors even circulated about her friendship with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and former President Bill Clinton (she has denied any romance with Clinton, Martin said).
She hosted a social gathering that is credited with helping bring together Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau.
Greg MacEachern, a Canadian TV personality and senior vice president of a Canadian marketing agency, was Stronach's right-hand man in parliamentary affairs. He describes her as warm and generous, known to make quiet donations to charities.
"As a politician, Belinda was not happy with the status quo," he said. "If she was to question something and the answer was, 'That's the way it was done,' that was not satisfying for Belinda."
Also, "Belinda was a catalyst for the first significant conversation in recent politics in Canada about women being elected, at least since the 1970s."
Since stepping away from politics, the breast cancer survivor has focused on assisting the family business and running her father's real estate company, she said.
Students from local Baltimore City schools and their frogs jockey for position to see who is king or queen. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
"It was a great honor to serve in the Canadian Parliament. I got to take on important issues and help solve them. I do miss it from that standpoint," Stronach said. "But I believe there are many ways to make a positive social change."
As her political career ended, so did some of the fascination, according to Martin.
"If Twitter were around back then, she would have broke Twitter regularly," he said. "But the public interest in her has evaporated. She just doesn't want it anymore, and she tries mightily to avoid it."
But Stronach still faces media scrutiny.
"Someone called me a 'disrupter' the other day," she said. "I took that as a very positive thing. ... You want to change the status quo. You become a lightning rod for certain things. I was fine with that."
Today, Stronach, 50, is president and co-chairman of the Stronach Group, operating horse tracks in Portland, Ore., California, Florida and, in Maryland, Laurel Park, Pimlico, Bowie Race Track, and now, Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington. She also launched Age Quencher, a line of all-natural beauty products, this year.
Now, it seems, Stronach's focus is on the family business, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club.
"We've made large capital investments in some of our racetracks to improve the overall customer experience, and we're modernizing each racetrack to make it a better, more fun and exciting place to come to and to enjoy the day at the races, even if you're not someone who is a die-hard bettor," she said.
For the tent, Stronach has enlisted Los Angeles interior designer Karan Brady to adorn a chalet with designer tartan and fabrics and vintage items, including hand-picked Parisian tapestry pillows, Turkish Oushak rugs and equestrian-themed designs and memorabilia from the Maryland Jockey Club Museum. Chandeliers and reclaimed wooden beams from a 19th-century barn line the ceiling. Tumbled limestone, custom topiaries and French doors with English ivy on the track-side courtyard will welcome attendees. Just outside, a patio leads to views of the race.
Sal Sinatra, the Maryland Jockey Club's general manager, said the company replaced the infield TV screen and made other improvements to the spectator experience.
"We're happy that Belinda is coming. That sort of solidifies her and the company's commitment to Maryland racing," Sinatra said.
As the director of horsemen's relations for the Maryland Jockey Club, Phoebe Hayes, 55, is a crucial figure behind the scenes of Preakness weekend. Whether her office is coordinating rides for owners, overseeing admittance to the winner's circle after the Preakness Stakes or arranging a White House tour, Hayes juggles it all, ensuring smooth visits for the VIPs.
Stronach's tent could be mistaken for a lavish living room, which was her intent, she said. It was her way of bringing her guests together to enjoy the race and prove the Stronach Group's commitment to improving and modernizing the quality and experience of horse racing, Stronach said.
"It's the first year we're doing this," she said. "Normally, we host [guests] in the grandstand, but it will be a really fun experience for our guests and friends and those that are in the racing experience. It'll be right beside the winner's circle."
Stronach's tent will be neighbor to the 10,000-square-foot Under Armour tent, hosted by founder and CEO Kevin Plank, which has seen the likes of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry at previous Preaknesses. This year, the more than 400 invited guests can enjoy an outdoor bar and a performance by the Morrison Brothers Band, according to an Under Armour spokeswoman.
"Kevin Plank always does such a great job with his tent and Under Armour. So we said, 'Why are we not doing our own tent?' This way we can also host people that are here to enjoy the race, and we get a chance to communicate with and have fun with," Stronach said.
At 3,000 square feet, Stronach's tent will invite more than 150 notables, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and celebrity chef Bobby Flay. The food, provided by Virginia-based caterer Design Cuisine, will adhere to Maryland roots, Stronach said, boasting Chesapeake crab cakes, Black-Eyed Susan cocktails, and an array of meats provided by Adena, sourced from the family ranch in Florida, Stronach said.
"We wanted to respect the tradition since it is one of the oldest, most famous sporting events. We wanted to keep all those aspects ... everything from the creative design, the Black-Eyed Susan drinks. We went for that sort of the tradition married with the casual elegance with the Ralph Lauren feel," Stronach said.
Outside, entertainment abounds, with other VIP tents and performances by headlining DJ duo the Chainsmokers, punk band (and Towson natives) All Time Low and hip-hop artist Fetty Wap.
"I'm a fan," Stronach said of Fetty, but not any more than she is of music producer and DJ Frank Walker — her 24-year-old son — who will be opening for the Chainsmokers. Her daughter, Nikki Walker, 22, a competitive equestrian and "huge fan of Preakness," will be flying up from Wellington, Fla., to attend.
"I'm a proud mom," she said, noting that it's a family affair.
Her Facebook page is undeniably hip, revealing glimpses of her travels to Malibu, sights of fall foliage and photos with her kids, including one with her and Nikki dressed as the twins-dancing emoji. Appropriately, her company will offer a "360-degree social media experience" of the Preakness as well.
During the festivities Saturday, you'll find her on the fly, Stronach said.
"I'll be everywhere," she said. "I'll be moving around ... of course, we're hosting the tent. I'll be checking out my son, Fetty Wap and the Chainsmokers. We also have great country acts. I'll be speaking to people and just having a good time."
And if the chalet is anything like Stronach's past parties that have helped spark romances, it means there might be some very lucky guests.
"You never know what is going to happen," Stronach said.