By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted SoquiWell, the hell with it. Frank Stronach, the Austro-Canadian philosopher mogul (think Ted Turner with a lot more imagination) whose Ontario-based auto-parts manufacturing company, Magna International, now had 50,000 employees in 16 countries, was moving too fast to bother about six-story codpieces, and the giant was scrapped. Stronach was all over the map, starting restaurants and magazines, backing a now-defunct four-wheel-drive sports car (the Torrero), running for the Canadian Parliament (he lost), starting up his own airline (Magna Air, with individual bedrooms for tired businessmen, still in the planning stage). And while all this was going on, he still had time to pour money into his two favorite sporting activities -- Austrian soccer and international horseracing. With some 800 head he keeps on 4,000 Kentucky acres, Stronach may own more thoroughbreds than anyone. (He's won some big races, but not enough of them. Says Cliff Hopmans, one of Stronach's many ex-trainers: "When he first started talking to me, he sits me down and he says, 'I want to win the Queen's Plate, the Kentucky Derby and all the Breeders' Cup races.' He had no other goal than to become the biggest and the best.")
Born Franz Strohsack, the son of an ardent communist, the future capitalist superstar had by the age of 66 managed to reinvent himself many times over, and this was what he liked to do with new acquisitions, among them, one of several racetracks he has recently bought, SoCal's very own Santa Anita, "The Great Race Place," "A Million Flowers and a Racetrack," all 300 acres of it snoozing peacefully in the city of Arcadia at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Suddenly big Frank had come to town, and suddenly a typically Stronachian transformational scheme was on the boards. Soon enough, as many saw it, Santa Anita would play the virginal maiden and the Mighty Stronach the despotic barbarian who, much like an ambulatory version of his abandoned colossus, had arrived bashing and pillaging and preparing to commit a kind of corporate rape. Straightaway he had axed the seven top Santa Anita executives, replacing them with counterparts from the minor-league Turf Paradise in Phoenix. He then announced his plans to reconstitute Santa Anita as a vast horse-themed entertainment complex, a "palace for thoroughbreds" that would not look out of place on Vegas' Flamingo Boulevard, complete with a hotel, a new restaurant, a racing museum, an IMAX theater, a gated residential community in the northern parking lot, a Western street along the lines of Universal's CityWalk, and a 40-by-53-foot Mega Vision screen in the infield on which to watch races in progress. Most blasphemous of all, Stronach wanted to rip up the hillside grass course and scrap the paddock gardens -- the very things that made Santa Anita Santa Anita.
None of this would happen overnight, it would be done in increments, yet the idea of someone, anyone -- not to mention this auto-parts manufacturer from Ontario -- dismantling beloved Santa Anita, which had so gamely survived in its own time zone for so long, virtually unchanged since its 1934 opening . . . well, this provoked a predictably angry response from many. Leading the chorus was the L.A. Conservancy, an organization dedicated to saving what can be saved of SoCal's architectural soul. Santa Anita, said spokesman Ken Bernstein, "is one of the most beautiful and historical racetracks in the world, an Art Deco jewel." (Its architect, Gordon Kaufmann, has such diverse and time-defying structures to his credit as the Times Mirror building and the Hoover Dam.) "Our goal," Bernstein said, "is not to freeze in place some moment in the past. We realize Santa Anita has to evolve, to reinvigorate the sport and to appeal to a new audience. But things can be done as change happens to keep the ambiance of the original. Allowing modifications, we want to keep what is most characteristic of the site."
The first phase of Magna International's plans for the new acquisition, rushed through in time for the Oak Tree meet September 29, was to involve only "modest interior work," Bernstein was told when he met with the new management. Conservancy members were then shocked to see two massive elevator towers rise in back of the grandstand. "The façade was punctured," said Bernstein (he might have said "penetrated"). "We were hoodwinked." Magna had gone back to the Arcadia Planning Council with new ideas after work had begun, claimed Bernstein. A Santa Anita spokesman denied this. "We are in full compliance with the city of Arcadia," said Stuart Zanville, not quite addressing the hoodwinkery, though he did add that Magna has hired a consultant with preservationist credentials, suggested by the Conservancy.
Phase One, as it played out, included a new restaurant (completed but not to open until the track's official meet, the day after Christmas), some work on the apron in front of the grandstand (benches and vast Grecian planters), the elevators, changes in the Turf Club and Clubhouse areas, and the big infield screen. Subsequently relations between the Conservancy and Magna have improved, but Bernstein still worries about Phase Two, which, as he said, is "the real threat." The question, of course, is to what and to whom?