Family feud erupts within Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico, Laurel racetracks

A report that Frank Stronach, founder of the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, has sued his daughter and successor Belinda Stronach has Maryland horse industry figures worried about any possible impact in a state where the future of the Preakness and racing in general is a perennial concern.

The Thoroughbred Daily News reported Wednesday that the 86-year-old patriarch has filed a suit in Ontario alleging that his daughter, who has taken an increasing role in Maryland racing events, has mismanaged The Stronach Group and wrested away control of his fortune. He is seeking her removal from the company and hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and damages, the news outlet reported.

The report set the horse industry abuzz, given the extensive holdings of the Stronach company, a Canada-based empire that is the largest owner and operator of racing facilities in the United States, from Santa Anita Park in California to Gulfstream Park in Florida in addition to the Maryland tracks.

“This is a family fight, but given the prominence of The Stronach Group in our industry, you have to be concerned,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Clearly we have to watch to see the implications for Maryland racing and racing in general.”

Foreman said there had been “rumblings” in the past year of trouble between Frank Stronach and his 52-year-old daughter, who had increasingly taken on more prominence with the company. Belinda Stronach had become known for her high-profile friendships with former President Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the British royal family.

Several racing industry representatives said Belinda Stronach was expected to attend the Maryland Million at Laurel Park, a premier fall racing event being held this year on Oct. 20. Both she and her father have long attended the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, which is held at Pimlico but is continually under threat of being moved from the aging facility.

“There were allegations that he had lost control of the company,” Foreman said. “She was certainly gaining more control, and certainly she was the face of the Stronach Group.”

Frank Stronach is listed as the company’s founder and honorary chairman while Belinda Stronach holds the title of chairman and president, according to its website.

Officials at Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club did not return calls and emails for comment. Instead, a spokeswoman for the Ontario-based Stronach company sent a statement to The Baltimore Sun.

“While we regret the tension that exists within the Stronach family, it remains business as usual for The Stronach Group,” Tiffani Steer, vice president for communications and events for the company said in an email.

Steer said the company “has been performing very well in a number of its core businesses, including our largest business, Racing & Gaming, which has seen revenue increase from $600 million in 2013 to over $1.1 billion in 2017.”

Steer also said she could not comment on behalf of Belinda Stronach or her co-defendant in the suit, Alon Ossip, identified by Thoroughbred Daily News as the company’s CEO, although he is no longer listed on its website.

A spokesman for Ossip denounced the lawsuit’s allegations as “baseless” and “not grounded in fact or reality.”

“Alon has always honored his obligations and acted in good faith to preserve and grow the Stronach family’s assets and to protect the interests of all members of the family,” Paul Deegan said in a statement.

Deegan’s statement went on to say Frank Stronach’s “recent excessive spending and numerous failed ventures put his family’s wealth at great risk.

“This is a dispute between Stronach family members that should be resolved between family members,” Deegan said.

In Maryland, the case is being closely watched, particularly by those concerned about the future of Pimlico — and whether the Preakness will stay at the aging facility. Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg, who represents the northwest district in which the track is located, said it’s premature to speculate what effect the family troubles will have on efforts to keep the Triple Crown race in Baltimore.

“Our ultimate goal remains the same — that we keep the Preakness in Baltimore and make Pimlico a 21st-century site for racing and the community,” Rosenberg said. “Our objective remains the same.

“The legislature said 30-some years ago that the race should be run in Baltimore,” he said. “It’s got to be a joint public-private venture to transform Pimlico.”

In the past, Stronach officials have said they would save money by operating one instead of two tracks in Maryland, and that Preakness could be better at Laurel Park, where they’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in renovations, than at the dilapidated but beloved Pimlico.

In June, in his first extended interview on the future of the Preakness, Frank Stronach told The Sun the race could stay at Pimlico in the long term only if the track were redeveloped as part of a broader effort to reduce poverty in Baltimore. “I think we will do everything we can that it definitely stays in Maryland,” he said. “The question is, can we come up with a solution which is a win-win-win? A win for the horse industry and a win to eliminate poverty in that area.”

Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said the lawsuit adds to an already uncertain environment in the state’s racing industry.

“I think the whole situation with what’s going to happen to Pimlico — is everything going to move to Laurel? — there are definitely a lot of moving parts. This might be another one,” said Peddicord, a former racing reporter for The Evening Sun.

Peddicord said Belinda Stronach had represented a change in style for the company, most noticeably in the chalet-like party tent she created at the Preakness. She described its Parisian tapestry pillows, Turkish Oushak rugs and other upscale furnishings to The Sun as “Soho House meets Ralph Lauren.”

“You could see that same motif carried through Laurel — the overstuffed chairs, the gentlemen’s club atmosphere,” Peddicord said. And form followed function, he said, comparing the different thrusts of father and daughter.

“He was more into the horse racing side,” Peddicord said. “She was about getting younger people involved, making it more hip and cool, which she saw as the future.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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