World's richest horse race launched in US
$12M jackpot eclipses Dubai World Cup
Race boss Belinda Stronach is an ex-politician
Businesswoman also survived breast cancer
Once deemed among the world’s 100 most influential people, Belinda Stronach has overseen a 120,000-strong workforce and survived breast cancer.
Now she has turned her attention to the “sport of kings” and putting on the world’s richest horse race.
The novel concept – the 12 entrants pay $1 million each for a starting stake, with $7 million going to the winner – ties in with the wagering side of the Stronach Group racing empire that created the event.
Stronach, the company’s president and chairman, wants to open up the sport to a newer generation of racegoers.
“We respect the history as well but we’re trying to modernize it and make it an even more fun experience,” she tells CNN.
In her native Canada, Stronach is more than just a businesswoman. She had two stints as a member of parliament, which spawned a biography of her life whose author described her as “the perfect storm of celebrity and politician.”
Despite her family background, she is nonetheless “a little surprised” to find herself working in the equine world.
“I grew up on a horse farm and my Dad and brother were passionate about horses, but I was interested in other horsepower,” she says via a telephone interview.
That alternative passion led her to become CEO of Magna International, once the largest automobile parts manufacturer in North America, and set up by her father Frank in the 1950s.
At its peak, she had 120,000 employees in 29 countries under her watch, with annual sales in excess of $30 billion.
In her subsequent life as a politician, she championed gender equality. Horse racing might be a male-dominated world, but she believes it has untapped potential for the opposite sex.
“Still the majority of owners, trainers and jockeys are men,” she says. “I don’t have any hard statistics to back it up but maybe 15% or even less are women.
“But in terms of attendance, we’ve done our research and that’s pretty equal between men and women, so the times are changing. We need to make sure we create the right experiences for men and women.”
Stronach is well versed in racing traditions. Her father’s horses have won two of the prestigious US Triple Crown events – the Preakness Stakes, which the family now owns, and the Belmont Stakes – as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this month rated the world’s top race for the second year in a row.
However, the 50-year-old Stronach wants to shake up the race-going experience.
“At the end of the day, it’s entertainment and we’re competing against so many different forms of it,” she says.
“It should be cool and fun. If you, say, want a Vegas experience, that will be offered, but we’re also investing in technology to make it more accessible.”
Stronach is targeting a less traditional racing audience. Already, the company has trialed events, inviting 400 young people to a day at the races at Santa Anita capped with a gig at the end by top DJ Mark Ronson.
The Stronach Group is the largest thoroughbred racing operation in North America. It owns tracks such as California’s Santa Anita and Florida’s Gulfstream Park, where the Pegasus World Cup will take place.
It also runs Xpressbet, a wagering business, but the venture it knows will attract attention and the headlines is running the world’s richest horse race.
Stronach admits “it’s always a risk when you try something new,” but likens the “pay to enter” format to poker playing – and hopes it will provide an appeal that other prestigious racing events do not.
“With that $1 million, they become stakeholders, so they share in some of the revenues, plus they can sell their slots in the race if they want,” she adds.
The plan was to bring the world’s best racehorses to Gulfstream – and the top two will go head to head this weekend.
It will be another showdown between top-ranked newcomer Arrogate and the ever popular California Chrome, who will run his final race before retiring.
Arrogate won the 2016 Longines World’s Best Racehorse award after chasing down Chrome in a thrilling finish to November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
A total of 12,000 racegoers are expected to attend, with the hope being many more will be watching on TV as it is being televised in the United States on NBC.
Though Stronach says she is too busy to dwell on her past, she acknowledges that a cancer scare late in her political career changed her outlook on life.
Two months after announcing she would not seek re-election, she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer and had a mastectomy.
“It’s strange to explain but it’s like a gift was given effectively in a way, because it gave me a second chance,” she says. “It refined my outlook and allowed me to become more balanced.”
Before the diagnosis, she knew something wasn’t quite right but assumed it was just a symptom of working too hard.
“I saw the doctor, had a biopsy and was told within four or five days that it was the early stages of breast cancer. I was lucky in that it was super early and the surgery wasn’t invasive,” she recalls.
“It makes you appreciate things more as you don’t know what the future holds.”
“Maybe I’ve been influenced by them,” she says. “My daughter’s a very serious rider while my son plays to huge audiences. So they have some influences, they’re friends too. They make you see possibilities of fun.”
Fun is a buzzword for Stronach, the Pegasus World Cup and horse racing in general.
She wants – and fully believes – it will cement itself as an iconic annual event in the horse racing calendar.
Saturday will reveal if she’s hit the jackpot.