Last weekend, thousands of horse-racing fans flooded into California’s Santa Anita Park to watch, and wager on, the first races of the season. There was the usual opening-weekend buzz in the air, but also trepidation. It’s been an agonizing year both for Santa Anita and the sport as a whole. On average, 10 horses die each week from injury at United States racetracks, and Santa Anita is among the deadliest.
After the 22nd horse was put down on the track last spring, Santa Anita’s owner, the Canadian heiress and businesswoman Belinda Stronach, made a decision to voluntarily close the park to conduct an internal investigation. Upon its reopening, she successfully introduced a series of stiff reforms intended to safeguard the health of racehorses.
Stronach’s progressive move was widely lauded by the media and animal-rights groups, and it would have been a great victory … if the horses hadn’t kept on dying. Between Santa Anita’s reopening last June and this past weekend, nine more horses collapsed and expired on its grounds during training or races. The string of deaths has prompted questions about Stronach’s authority and whether the reforms went far enough. More than anything, though, the deaths are just a mystery.
Opening Weekend, and Another Death
Opening weekend was meant to be a fresh start for Santa Anita, but outside the park, police were called to break up altercations between protesters for and against the embattled sport. Inside, it was the usual swirl of glamour and seediness—the champagne flowed and the bookies set the odds—with one notable absence: Belinda Stronach herself.
The 53-year-old reportedly missed her own party because of “longstanding obligations in Toronto.” In light of what happened, it’s just as well. During the eighth race, a three-year-old colt named Emtech stumbled and fell, breaking both forelegs, and was later euthanized by lethal injection on the track as spectators watched in horror. One fan who was there described the “awful silence” that instantly fell over the crowd. Five days earlier, Governor Gavin Newsom, who had praised Stronach’s initial reforms, told The New York Times that unless horse racing cleaned up its act, the sport had no future: “The willingness to just spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.” It was a comment many interpreted as a thinly veiled threat to Santa Anita: Clean up your act or face closure.
In Toronto, a spokesperson for Stronach said that “an investigation has been launched” and described the “overwhelming emotional response for the whole team.” That’s hardly surprising given that the equine body count represents both a failure of Stronach’s own leadership and an apparent inability to change the sport she’s fought long and hard to revitalize.
An immaculately turned-out former Canadian Cabinet minister, Stronach is known in business and social circles for her steely public grace—she projects a certain icy-blond, Austrian-Canadian flintiness—but the ongoing death toll at Santa Anita, her friends say, is taking an inevitable toll. How powerless Stronach must feel about the deaths, in spite of her attempts to change things. And one wonders whether her enemies—in particular her father, Frank—take some delight in watching her struggle.
How powerless she must feel about the deaths. And one wonders whether her enemies—in particular her father—take some delight in watching her struggle.
The day before Santa Anita reopened, Frank Stronach, an 87-year-old self-made Canadian auto-parts billionaire who is suing his daughter for control of the family fortune, released a lengthy statement describing in detail his plans to create a horse-racing nonprofit trust to manage the racetracks owned by the Stronach Group, when and if he wins his court case. In it, he blames the horse deaths at Santa Anita Park on “negligence on the part of management” that was “driven by profits instead of what was best for our industry and its stakeholders.” It’s a damning statement, but as I reported in a recent story for the magazine Toronto Life, it’s just another log on the roaring bonfire that’s engulfed the Stronachs in recent years and may well incinerate both the family and their fortune in the end.
The succession battle of the Stronachs has parallels to many grand narratives, from King Lear to the HBO series Succession, but the real-life drama is richer than fiction. Helping the Stronachs destroy and diminish one another is big business in Canada these days. Put together, the Stronach case comprises well over a thousand pages of claims and reads like a Russian novel. It has galvanized the country’s top corporate legal minds—more than 50 lawyers are working on the case—with bills estimated in the tens of millions for what is, essentially, little more than a private civil-trust dispute.
Though Frank declined to be interviewed for this article, he recently gave a three-hour-interview to The Globe and Mail, in which he accused his daughter of stealing his company, then said he’d be willing to forgive her as long as she returns it.
“I came to the conclusion that neither my daughter has the ability to run a complex company and neither has my son. I just want to see some balance, some harmony in the family,” Frank said. Belinda, for her part, said in an interview that she found her father’s behavior “unfathomable” and, when asked about his mental state, replied, “My father is in his late 80’s and very focused on his legacy, including building a $55 million statue of winged Pegasus and a fire-breathing dragon,” referring to the massive sculpture that rises more than 100 feet above the grounds of Gulfstream Park, Florida, one of her father’s many passion projects. “I’m not sure what he’ll think of next.”
“I’m not sure what he’ll think of next,” said Belinda.
The Stronach legal battle began in earnest last fall, when Frank and his wife, Elfriede, filed an excoriating 73-page statement of claim against his daughter; her two children, Frank and Nicole Walker; and the Stronach Group’s former C.E.O. Alon Ossip. In it, he demanded more than $375 million in damages and unpaid fees, alleging his daughter and colleague mismanaged the company and the family’s assets, which they proceeded to diminish through a toxic combination of fecklessness and hubris. The document oozes with explosive patriarchal rage, concluding with Frank’s demand that Belinda and Ossip be immediately removed as trustees and corporate officers. (Ossip did not respond to a request for comment.)
Frank’s initial lawsuit set off a chain reaction. A few weeks later, Andrew Stronach sued his sister, seeking to oust her and her children as trustees and supporting Frank’s reinstatement. (Andrew did not respond to requests for comment.) In the new year, Belinda filed a lengthy statement of defense and counterclaim, as did Alon Ossip. Kathleen Stronach filed for divorce from Andrew, in what sources say was an effort to formalize their long-term separation and secure financial support. Then their 18-year-old daughter, Selena, took her father’s side and filed suit against her aunt Belinda and Ossip. Finally, there was the defense and counterclaim from the Stronach Consulting Corp.—the entity named in Frank’s initial claim. All claims are ongoing, and none of the allegations have been proven in court. It’s a web of conflict with no resolution in sight.
Now the family is battling for control of the Stronach Group as a whole, not just the racing-and-gaming empire but a real-estate fortune held in a complex collection of trusts, corporations, and other entities that Frank set up to manage the Stronach-family business after he left Magna International, the auto-parts empire he founded in Toronto in 1957.
“Yodeling All Night Long”
Back in the early 2000s, Frank Stronach, then still head of Magna, turned his mind to succession. In a controversial deal, he sold off much of his empire yet ensured that the family trust retained the majority of Magna’s voting shares, consolidating power within the family.
In 2001, Frank decided that Belinda, who’d been working at Magna in an executive capacity since dropping out of university in her first year, was ready to take over. He appointed her C.E.O.
He also invested in a string of imaginative, yet unprofitable, side ventures, including the prototype for an electric bike and Austrian-themed energy drink whose prospective launch campaign featured a lederhosen-clad model and the slogan “Keeps you yodeling all night long!” There were charitable ventures, too. After Hurricane Katrina, Frank built a housing project in Louisiana for survivors called Canadaville.
Only three years after her appointment, at the age of 37, Belinda Stronach announced she was stepping down to launch a bid for the federal leadership of the Conservative Party. The same year, Time magazine included her on its list of the world’s most influential people. Her star was rising, but the idea of a non-French-speaking billionaire’s daughter with no political experience taking over the country didn’t wash, and she lost the race by a large margin. She did win her seat, however, landing herself on the backbench under the leadership of Stephen Harper, who spoke admiringly of the “glamour” Stronach brought to the otherwise mundane arena of Canadian politics. She eventually crossed the floor and joined the Liberals, briefly became a Cabinet minister, then stepped down completely in 2007 and returned to Magna.
With his daughter back at the helm of Magna, Frank turned his attention to horse racing and farming. He’d bought his first Thoroughbred in 1962 and later purchased several major American racetracks and a world-class horse-breeding operation near Versailles, Kentucky. In 2010, he acquired 90,000 acres of land in Ocala, Florida—America’s horse-racing capital—which he called Adena Farms. He invested in livestock—an enormous herd of cattle and, later, hogs. At eye-watering expense he converted land into pasture and built his own private slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant. All told, over six years the Stronachs spent nearly $225 million to develop Frank’s agricultural business.
Organic Hog Farming
As his fascination with animal husbandry grew, so did the scope of his dreams. He imagined Adena as an organic, grass-fed-cattle farm, complete with its own on-site abattoir, packaging company, and food shop. He built a private members’ golf course and acquired land where he planned to develop 120 luxury retirement residences. He opened two restaurants there—Frankey’s Sports Bar and Adena Grill and Wine Bar—and a butcher shop that carried Adena Farms beef. On a separate tract of land 30 miles down the road, he discovered he owned a grove of mature oak trees. This inspired him to start an organic hog operation where the pigs could graze exclusively on his acorns. The plan was that the animals would then be slaughtered at his newly built slaughterhouse, producing pork products on a par with the finest Iberico ham from Spain.
Adena bled cash, but as Frank pointed out to anyone who’d listen, good start-ups need investment. Still, much about Adena’s operations made no sense from the outset. Ocala, which sits in the sweltering center of Florida, isn’t a particularly good place for raising grass-fed cattle, let alone pigs, because of the nature of the soil. One former employee told me the hog operation was particularly far-fetched. It would have been cheaper, he said, to import truckloads of acorns directly to Ocala than to graze the hogs 30 miles down the road at Frank’s oak grove. Such practical realities were dismissed. “Frank had his ideas and he wasn’t listening to reason,” said the former employee, who was eventually fired.
According to Belinda, Frank enacted his ideas by decree—there were no business plans, market research, or executive approval. “He had absolutely no compunction about spending loads of cash, even when the business was draining money,” said one executive hired to work on the farm. “There were things that made absolutely no sense at all, and there was no follow-up and no one to manage him.” Adena employees began to call the farm “Frank’s Field of Dreams.”
Frank’s spending crossed from quixotic to grandiose when he decided to try his hand as an artist. With his daughter’s sign-off, he designed, commissioned, and produced a gargantuan statue of Pegasus defeating a dragon, which was installed as a statement piece and tourist attraction for the company’s Gulfstream Park. Originally budgeted at $4.5 million, the project eventually came in at $41 million.
Practical realities were dismissed. Employees began to call the farm “Frank’s Field of Dreams.”
In August 2010, however, Frank relinquished his majority-shareholder voting rights at Magna. The controversial deal was largely orchestrated by Alon Ossip, who’d been hired by Frank as vice president when Belinda was in Ottawa. It made the Stronachs even richer. In exchange for Frank’s resignation, the family received shares of Magna, cash, and several racetracks, valued somewhere between $1.1 and $1.2 billion.
When the deal was done, Magna was sold and Frank formed the Stronach Group, which managed the family’s accumulated wealth in a trust, a huge amount of real estate (much of it in Florida and North Toronto), and their horse-racing and gaming businesses. Ossip was generously rewarded for his cleverness—the family signed over a 5 percent interest in Stronach Group assets. With her father’s support, Belinda offered him the job of C.E.O. of the newly formed Stronach Group. She’d serve as chair.
Her power at the company grew, but the more Belinda tried to persuade her father to reign in his passion projects, the more obstinate he became. According to several sources, Frank refused to submit business plans for his schemes, treating the family business as his personal checking account. Allegedly, so did the rest of the Stronachs. According to Frank’s allies, the company was mismanaged, and there was no system of governance separating the family business from the personal-trust payouts. (Belinda and Ossip vehemently deny this was the case.)
With Frank officially retired, and Ossip installed as C.E.O., Belinda became the new face of the Stronach brand. She gamely used her public profile to rebrand Thoroughbred racing, persuading people like Bobby Flay, Lenny Kravitz, Susan Sarandon, Pharrell Williams, and 50 Cent to attend her races. Slowly but surely, she was turning the racing-and-gaming business around—making lemonade from an asset once regarded as one of her father’s lemons.
Feelings of Resentment
Was Frank delighted by his daughter’s success? If anything, Belinda’s newfound vocation seemed to inspire feelings of resentment, and he continued to focus his attention on investing in Adena Farms.
In 2012, Frank founded a grassroots, right-wing Austrian political party called Team Stronach. It wasn’t his first foray into politics—he’d made a failed run for the federal Liberals in 1988. Frank financed Team Stronach primarily with funds from the Stronach Group, with Belinda’s blessing. In the end, he won 11 seats, including his own, making it the fifth-largest party in the highly fragmented Austrian Parliament. He relocated to Austria to take up his seat on the backbench.
It wasn’t long before the Austrian tax authorities turned up on his doorstep. As a member of the legislature, Frank had to disclose his financial information. In 2013, he stepped down from the Stronach Group, giving up his role as super-trustee. He announced Belinda as his successor, giving her full reign over the family coffers. Ossip was made a trustee as well, as were Belinda’s children, Frank junior and Nicole. The balance of power had swung to Belinda’s side of the family.
On the same day of this long-awaited coronation, something unusual took place: Frank’s company lawyers created a set of undated documents declaring Belinda’s children’s resignations as trustees and their grandfather’s re-appointment. These documents are the central issue of dispute in the case. Frank claims he requested them should he ever wish to resume his position of ultimate power, and that all parties understood this.
On the same day that Belinda was appointed as super-trustee, something strange took place.
Belinda and Ossip disagree. According to Belinda’s court documents, such an intention would mean Frank’s resignation was an effort designed to avoid Austrian public-disclosure requirements. She insists the documents were created at Ossip’s request because he was worried he’d be left with only Frank junior and Nicole as co-trustees in the event of Belinda’s death or incapacity. (She is a survivor of breast cancer.) Both Ossip and Belinda maintain absolutely that Frank had no part in the creation of the re-appointment documents.
Meanwhile, Frank lasted just a few months in Austrian politics. He returned home in January 2014, restless and more determined than ever to make Adena a success. He resumed work on the farms, hiring and firing, expanding and growing the business, which was by then hemorrhaging money. He resumed tacit control as the family patriarch, which was the way things had always been. Belinda and Ossip, he says, knowingly deluded him, creating a Truman Show–like world in which he was still boss. Instead of telling him he no longer had legal signing authority, Frank contends, the two signed off on copies of contracts he’d executed after the fact to preserve his delusion.
A Standoff with Missiles Aimed
Belinda and Ossip categorically deny this version of events. They say Frank had stepped away from the family business years earlier, and that he created his “delusion” narrative in an attempt to resume control.
In 2016, on Belinda’s orders, Ossip called Frank to inform him that the Stronach Group was facing significant liquidity issues and he would need to rein in spending on Adena. A meeting with all three followed, at which Belinda backed Ossip. Frank says his daughter and Ossip were “confrontational, disrespectful and insubordinate.” Ossip and Belinda contend that they were respectful and calm. The only thing everyone agrees on is that, for the first time ever, Belinda explicitly pulled rank—informing her father that he had no legal right to act in the name of the business and that, if he did, she would take active steps to undermine him.
In the days following the meeting, Frank ordered Belinda to fire Ossip, whom he’d come to see as the root of the problem. Belinda was torn. On one side was her father, on the other her C.E.O. She attempted a compromise. She asked Ossip to go on leave until the situation with Frank had become defused. He agreed.
A failed mediation process ensued. A truce was negotiated and reneged on. Two sides formed. On Team Frank was Elfriede, Andrew, and Andrew’s daughter Selena. On Team Belinda was Ossip and her two children, Nicole and Frank junior. For more than a year, the Stronachs remained at a standoff, missiles aimed, no one willing to detonate.
But then Belinda and Ossip decided to sell the company jet.
Mutually Assured Destruction?
It was the jet sale, more than anything else, that insiders say prompted Frank to file suit against his daughter and grandchildren. “You have to understand the mentality,” said one former executive. “Frank Stronach hadn’t flown commercial in well over 40 years.” As the sale was being finalized, Frank filed suit.
These days, the Stronachs’ Aurora family compound, with its three sprawling faux-Regency mansions and man-made swimming lakes, looks more like a luxury ghost town. Belinda barely visits. When she’s in Toronto, she lives and works downtown in a Yorkville condo. According to Frank’s lawsuit, she purchased an office building on Hazelton and is renovating it to be the Stronach Group’s new downtown headquarters—a decision that reportedly enraged Frank, who resents her absence. Frank has retired to Florida with Elfriede. Andrew has been in Prince Edward County for decades and is said to avoid Aurora at all costs.
It was the jet sale that insiders say prompted Frank to file suit against his daughter and grandchildren.
This spring, as his daughter struggled to staunch the horse death toll and ensuing P.R. fallout, Frank Stronach published an open letter in the Los Angeles Times addressed to “All Horse Lovers in the State of California.” It began with several rambling paragraphs of bombastic self-mythology and ended with the announcement that he would be making a speech on the future of horse racing the following Tuesday at the Embassy Suites of the Arcadia hotel, around the corner from Santa Anita, which was closed at the time.
In front of 200-odd people, Frank announced his new succession plan, should he win back control of the Stronach Group in the courts. He promised he would put the company’s racing properties in a trust and allow the “horsemen of America” to operate the business. His daughter, not surprisingly, met his proposed act of beneficence with deep skepticism. “My father does not listen to most people and he is not inclined to promote women in leadership positions,” she said.
The Stronachs seem locked in an act of mutually assured destruction with no end in sight, yet another family business combusting at the point of friction where love and power intersect. While Belinda controls the business today, her victory in court is far from certain. Her defense—that she pushed her father out in an act of fiduciary duty—contains a major flaw: Why didn’t she step in before Frank allegedly lost the family business $600 million? Andrew’s, Elfriede’s, and Selena’s lawyers are asking precisely this question, making it possible the case will grind on well after Frank’s death, or until the money runs out. Never has the cynical line about lawyers being the only winners seemed so fitting.
Leah McLaren is a Canadian journalist