How Preakness Stakes Owner, Belinda Stronach, Transforms The Thoroughbred Horse Racing Industry For The Next Generation
Angela Chan Contributor
I write about female leadership and retail businesses.
Thoroughbred horse racing is one of the oldest sporting events in America. The Preakness Stakes was founded in 1873, held on the third Saturday in May each year at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The race is one leg of the prestigious American Triple Crown. Belinda Stronach, Chairman, CEO & President of 1/ST, owner of the prestigious Preakness Stakes, speaks about her leadership and vision to transform this nearly 150-year-old sporting entertainment to attract and thrive with the next generation.
Angela Chan: Tell us about the early stages of your career.
Belinda Stronach: I began my career at Magna International Inc., a company that was founded by my father, Frank Stronach, in 1957. Magna is one of the largest suppliers of automotive systems and components globally, with more than 120,000 employees in 29 countries and over $30 billion in annual sales.
While it may sound like an easy street to work for your father, it was anything but and a different kind of challenge. Growing up, so to speak, in a family business, you encounter other impediments. I remember talking to a women’s business group more than a decade ago and describing not facing the glass ceiling but also the “family ceiling.” Those hard-to-quantify criteria you had to meet for success and promotion. I was shocked at the number of women who came up to me after, who worked in family businesses and said it perfectly described their situation.
I left Magna in 2011 after having served as Executive Vice-Chairman. While at Magna, I also served on the Board of Directors and as the company’s President and Chief Executive Officer. I am proud that under my leadership, the company had record sales and profits each year, and its stock price nearly doubled in value. I experienced first-hand the harsh lessons of the global competitive challenge to Canadian businesses and served on the Ontario Task Force on Productivity, Competitiveness, and Economic Progress.
I have always been a big believer in the importance of public service. A healthy democracy needs people to have real choices. So, with that in mind, I jumped into the race to become the leader of one of Canada’s main political parties. Admittedly, people thought I was crazy at the time, but I worked hard and had a message that resonated, especially with young professional women. I didn’t win that race, but I came in a healthy second, which sent shock waves through the political establishment. Talk about a “male-dominated” world.
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I subsequently stood for election as a Member of Parliament for my home riding of Newmarket-Aurora, Ontario. Few pundits or political operatives gave me a chance. But again, I worked hard, waking in the early hours to meet commuters as they rushed to work in the morning at train stations. I went relentlessly from house to house in my community, sometimes in the pouring rain, to convince them to vote for me on my merits and promising to fight for them in Parliament. I won. And then I won again the next election, representing a completely different political party.
I was very proud to serve those two terms as an elected Member of Parliament from 2004-2008. During that time, I served in the Cabinet as Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and as Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal. I was honored to be the Chair of the Liberal Women’s Caucus, where I worked with my fellow parliamentarians on creating The Pink Book series. It outlined ways to improve women’s economic security and economic empowerment. As a businessperson, I realized that service to one’s country is a noble pursuit.
Seeing an opportunity to support social innovation, in 2008, I established The Belinda Stronach Foundation (TBSF) as an incubator for innovative projects tackling social, economic, and health challenges both in Canada and around the world. The Foundation has served as an incubator for programs like Spread the Net, One Laptop per Child Canada, and the G(irls)20 Summit. All of which continue to this day under the operation of other independent charities. In my hometown, I worked with local stakeholders to establish Belinda’s Place, York Region’s only home for single women experiencing homelessness.
Chan: Is there a pivotal moment that helped shape whom you have become as a leader?
Stronach:: I believe that an effective leader is formed from a series of moments and the culmination of life experiences. I have learned many lessons along the way and experienced both personal and professional ups and downs. I have realized that good leaders surround themselves with smart people who share hard work and determination values. As a woman with a strong sense of self, I follow my instincts and am not afraid to advocate for my point of view or disrupt the status quo.
Chan: What challenges did you face as a woman climbing the ranks in a male-dominated industry like horse racing?
Stronach: I have always worked in “male-dominated” industries and have had to face the reality that women are required to work twice as hard, speak twice as loud, and are held to a higher degree of expectation. While things have certainly evolved, much work is still to be done to ensure women receive equal representation, pay, and treatment. As women, we need to sit on boards, hold leadership positions, and advocate for ourselves and other women.
I want to think that my position as Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President of 1/ST is helping redefine women’s roles in Thoroughbred horse racing by setting an example for a new generation of females in our sport. For those who aren’t aware, 1/ST (pronounced “First”) is the consumer-facing brand of The Stronach Group and includes a variety of businesses such as 1/ST RACING, 1/ST CONTENT, 1/ST TECHNOLOGY, 1/ST EXPERIENCE, and 1/ST PROPERTIES; all companies represent our continued movement toward redefining Thoroughbred horse racing and the ecosystem that drives it.
At 1/ST, we have a strong group of women leaders who hold executive and senior leadership roles across many business areas. In 2018, Dr. Dionne Benson became our company’s first Chief Veterinary Officer responsible for directing all veterinary safety and welfare practices and protocols, as well as equine research initiatives for 1/ST RACING venues, including California’s Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West in South Florida, and Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park in Maryland. Dr. Benson also oversees veterinary protocols and practices for our company’s premier events, the Preakness Stakes and the Pegasus World Cup Championship Invitational Series. In addition to Dr. Benson, women hold leadership roles in our finance, communications, legal and racing operations.
Women play critical roles in horse racing as owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, media, racetrack operators, and management personnel. As women, we should not be afraid to challenge the status quo in horse racing or any other business for that matter – amazing things can happen when we do!
Chan: If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself as you embark on your career path?
Stronach: My advice to myself would be the same advice I would give to other young women now – follow your instincts and become your advocate. Do not be afraid to take the path unknown or to take risks and break barriers. If you do this, there will be a lot of noise around you. Some people will be jealous or try to denigrate you. Take that as the price of your independence and fortitude, and embrace the noise as beautiful. It means that you are doing something. As cliché as it may sound, every step is a learning opportunity that leads to another opportunity.
Be bold and realize that your career is fluid. You can and should permit yourself to evolve with time.
Chan: What inspired you to evolve Preakness the way that you have?
Stronach: I have said before that Thoroughbred horse racing is the last excellent legacy sporting platform to modernize, and I believe that.
At 1/ST, we are an entertainment company focusing on building forward-thinking, innovative, and successful sports-anchored digital, wagering, media, entertainment, and real estate development companies with Thoroughbred racing at the core.
The Preakness Stakes, the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown series, is our company’s premier event. We see it as one of our most significant opportunities to demonstrate leadership and innovation.
Live sporting and entertainment events around the world have had to adapt to address safety precautions surrounding Covid-19. For Preakness 146, the 1/ST team worked tirelessly with Baltimore City and the State of Maryland to thoughtfully and safely plan for an exciting and memorable day of world-class Thoroughbred horse racing and entertainment.
With standardized Covid-19 protocols in place, we implemented various measures to ensure our guests’ safety. Some of the safety measures included non-invasive infrared temperature sensors, mandatory masking, socially distant ticketed areas, streamlined hospitality to decrease the movement of crowds throughout the day, and allowing the vaccinated guests to show their vaccination cards upon arrival.
Preakness 146 allowed us to reimagine the race day experience for 10,000 guests compared to the usual 120,000 fans. We utilized our ample outdoor spaces and technology to offer a more intimate and personalized experience that included the opportunity to view the races in a safe and socially distant way from the Grandstand, Turfside Terrace, and private cabanas. Contactless hospitality service and wagering were available via the 1/ST BET app.
This year, 3,000 fans attended Preakness LIVE, a reimagined entertainment experience featuring an all-star lineup of performances by legendary #ClubQuarantine DJ, D-Nice, NAACP Image Awards Entertainer Of The Year, 2 Chainz, Grammy Award-winning rapper, and Billboard Awards Winner Major Lazer. The front rows were reserved exclusively for 200 first responders, frontline workers, and guests who viewed the show from private pods. NBC showed Preakness LIVE performances during the live race day broadcast while D-Nice live-streamed his performance on #ClubQuarantine.
In addition to the live music excitement of Preakness LIVE, the Preakness 146 JockeyCam was live-streamed @PreaknessStakes and offered a thrilling “second screen experience” that gave fans at home a real-time view of what it is like to be a jockey riding in the Preakness Stakes.
We know that the future of our sport depends on modernizing to engage the next generation of fans with a focus on integrity, accountability, and innovation. The success of Preakness 146 reflected our commitment to those principles.
Chan: What aspects of the changes you’ve made due to the pandemic you foresee sticking around for future Preakness events?
Stronach: The pandemic has offered sporting and live event operators to be innovative, and the 1/ST team has done just that.
The 1/ST BET app was launched in 2019 by 1/ST TECHNOLOGY with the vision of modernizing the wagering experience on Thoroughbred horse racing for everyone from the experienced horseplayer to the first-time wagerer and has continued to evolve and offer greater functionality. Over the past year, we saw an incredible 379% increase in users. We are confident that we will continue to see growth across our digital and technology platforms. We are thrilled to provide our fans with an easy and interactive way to enjoy Thoroughbred horse racing.
In addition to our digital offerings, 1/ST launched a first-of-its-kind in Thoroughbred racing, as this year’s Preakness commemorated its incredible 146-year legacy with an exclusive line of limited edition NFTs. The Preakness NFT collection featured full race clips from some of the biggest races in Preakness history (including an NFT of the Tiffany-designed Woodlawn Vase Trophy sold for nearly $100,000), allowing fans and collectors to own official Preakness races as exclusive 1-of-1 NFTs. Immediately following Rombauer’s victory, we became the fastest professional sports organization, team, or athlete to mint an NFT following a sporting event. It was another excellent example of how to reach customers through innovation and technology.
In the end, the Preakness NFT auction grossed the equivalent of $628,000, a portion of which will go to our charitable partners, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
Chan: Was Preakness 146 still a success despite the Covid-19 related restrictions?
Stronach: Preakness 146 was a huge success. Attendance may have been limited due to Covid-19 restrictions in place, but the atmosphere and excitement indeed were not!
This year’s Preakness was the most-watched since 2018, with 8.6 million viewers tuning in to the live NBC broadcast. Preakness 146 was a record-setting weekend with over $112.5 million wagered on Preakness Day and $27.65 million on Black-Eyed Susan Day!
Most importantly, we are thrilled to have been able to provide our guests and stakeholders with an amazing Preakness experience, and we look forward to welcoming our fans and stakeholders back for Preakness 147 in 2022.
Chan: You have accomplished tremendous success with business, politics, and family. What is next for you?
Stronach: My personal and professional satisfaction comes from making positive impacts and changes. I believe that business can be a force for good in society, reflecting consumer demand and shaping values.
We’ve already created an incredible platform of strength. Still, through innovation, new technologies, and ideas, I will lead the 1/ST group of companies to shape a better society and be the leader of entertainment, wagering and gaming, media, Thoroughbred horse racing, and real estate development. More importantly, I will continue to be laser-focused on the need to ever improve and maintain high standards of safety, transparency, and governance in all areas.
To add, I’ve always been motivated by empowering women and young people and look forward to continuing to drive that agenda forward.
All that said, my family is most important to me. I continue to be amazed and proud of the accomplishments of my son and daughter, with whom I share an incredible and special relationship. The best is yet to come!
I write about female leadership and retail businesses. My career experience spans global business development, operation, supply chain, design, and product development…