Belinda Stronach never really liked horses -- yet she runs the biggest private horse-track company in the country. A longtime businesswoman and former Canadian politician, Stronach is now chairman and owner of The Stronach Group, the family business behind the annual Preakness Stakes. Inc. caught up with Stronach at this year's event, as she explained how her young company is dealing with her sport's declining popularity, federal changes to gambling rules -- and some good old infrastructure headaches.  

The Slog and the Glory

Fog, mud, and rivals couldn't stop Justify (ridden by Mike Smith, above in white silks) from winning the 143rd Preakness Stakes in May. Three weeks later, the three-year-old chestnut colt would claim the Triple Crown, raising the sport's profile, if only briefly. When Justify crossed the finish line at the storied but struggling Pimlico track in Baltimore, few fans were watching more closely than Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of the Stronach Group. Her family business, which owns Pimlico and five other tracks, employs some 3,500 full-time people and claims to be the largest private horse-track owner in America.

Now, for her company to thrive, Stronach must take on the sport's entrenched analog problems while facing some modern challenges of the digital age. Five days before this year's Preakness, the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting--changing the landscape for horse­racing, previously the only sport that Congress had exempted, and setting off a race across the gaming industry to capture a new group of legal sports bettors.

The Limits of Old-World Charm

A Preakness guest (above) places her bet. The Stronach Group, which handled about 40 percent of the $11 billion bet on horses last year, is developing an app to make the process more high-tech. "Horseracing is the last great sporting legacy platform that has not yet fully modernized," Stronach says. She's facing other handicaps: 148-year-old Pimlico has its charms, including a ready room for jockeys and buglers (above), but it is also known for leaky roofs and aging infrastructure. Renovations have been estimated to cost $300 million, money that the Stronach Group won't spend without state support. But moving the Preakness to Laurel Park, the company's track outside Baltimore, upsets traditionalists--and requires legislative signoff. "We're committed to racing in Maryland," Stronach says, "but we need a venue that can accommodate all of those [modern] things."

A Star-Studded Winner's Circle

It can't control the weather, but Stronach's company has worked to polish every other aspect of racing, a once-glamorous sport fighting a long decline. A Canadian celebrity who's known as much for her A-list circles as for her business and political careers, Stronach is amping up the "front of house" food, entertainment, and VIPs at her tracks. Preakness guests this year included celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and musicians Ne-Yo and Post Malone. "I've often heard people say, 'Baseball can be pretty boring, football games can be pretty long,' " says Stronach. "The good thing about horse­racing is that we constantly have races happening--and between the races, it becomes a super-fun day party."

Taking the Reins

Stronach, 52, wasn't all that big on horses--unlike her father, Frank, 86, who founded auto-parts empire Magna International. "Growing up around the dinner table, I'm surrounded by horse lovers," she laughs. "They'd talk and I'd tune out." Stronach worked her way up Magna's ranks to become CEO, but in 2004, she stepped down for a four-year headline-grabbing stint as a member of the Canadian Parliament. In 2011, after her family sold its controlling shares in Magna, she and Frank reshaped the company's entertainment division, which became the Aurora, Ontario-based Stronach Group. "I'm always stressed on race days. I want to make sure things go as well as they can," she said a few days after this year's Preakness, as she and her executive team started planning their improvements for next year--though Justify's race will be tough to top. "It was pretty dramatic watching the two front-runners come out of the fog and race to the finish line," she added. "You have total respect for the athleticism, and for the challenges."

From the October 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine