City Profile — 05 June 2015
Meet Frank Stronach, the man behind Gulfstream: ‘This was my big gamble’

By Eric Barton

A man in a graphite suit and hair the color of white gold walks through the front door, and there’s a distinct feeling that something important has just occurred. The manager, who was once hovering, the bartender, who was previously doting, rush off to their pre-assigned Red Alert positions. The man is Frank Stronach, and he owns everything in sight.

Stronach oversaw the selection of every single carved stone and rainshower-like chandelier that went into the new Adena Grill steakhouse. Stronach designed it to become the headliner of his Village at Gulfstream Park, which he also built from his own ideas. Stronach, you see, does not always trust delegation.

An Austrian native, Stronach built an auto-parts business from nothing. He’s 82 now and owns a vast cattle ranch in central Florida, founded a political party in his home country, and bought a collection of horseracing tracks.

Stronach looks out over the vast dining room, dominated by leather banquettes shaped into tight C’s, like the cozy booths in Rat Pack movies. He doesn’t see what he needs, a quiet space to talk, so he heads towards where I’m sitting in the adjoining wine bar.

Here, the walls are bottles. The restaurant is said to have ordered 7,000 bottles of wine. A sommelier designed the list initially, but then Stronach changed many of them.

It’s just like the table where I’m sitting. As the centerpiece of the bar, Stronach insisted he wanted a high-top table that would seat 20 and was made out of one single piece of wood. They told him it couldn’t be done, but yet here it is.

Stronach strolls by, distracted by his goal of a quiet room. Someone introduces him, and he absently shakes with his left hand before continuing on to the wine cellar. Stronach, of course, designed it too, from the baroque ceilings of cut stone to the open shelves of bottles.

Stronach deems the wine cellar too small for his assembled collection of lieutenants, so he bolts by us again, off to the restaurant’s more secluded event space. The manager says he’s not sure what the meeting is about, but things look serious. There’s no telling with Stronach, who might be discussing the restaurant’s bookkeeping practices to the consistency of the Yorkshire pudding. After it opened, Stronach didn’t like the menu’s Caesar with grilled romaine, so he replaced it with a traditional version.

Before you think Stronach is eccentric or controlling, consider what he’s done here with Gulfstream Park. First, he dropped $200 million to renovate the racetrack that first opened in 1939, adding slot machines, poker tables and a stunning grandstand. Then he more than doubled that investment by constructing an adjoining entertainment district that he dubbed the Village at Gulfstream Park. It was a bold idea not only because he spent somewhere near a half-billion. But there was already a successful mall 1.4 miles away in Aventura and a second designer shopping center eight miles south in Bal Harbour.

The Village opened in 2010, when once lavish condo sales offices had closed. It would have been entirely reasonable for the idea of Gulfstream to have died, but instead Stronach put together plans to expand. Adding to the chain restaurants like Yard House and III Forks, Gulfstream has since added a specialty of furniture and home goods, including massive outposts of West Elm and Crate & Barrel.

Sitting down one afternoon at Frankey’s Sports Bar, the establishment  he recently built to his own specifications, Stronach says he never lost faith in the concept behind Gulfstream. Those storefronts that sat empty at the beginning, and those that still do, don’t trouble him. “The secret is you gotta be focused and stay focused,” Stronach says at his regular table in the center of the expansive sports bar, bigger than most hotel ballrooms.

As we sit, a woman comes by with a portable betting machine, asking if we’d like to wager on the next race. I place a $2 bet on horse No. 3 to win, while Stronach declines. “I’m pretty lucky with everything I do, but I don’t bet,” he says. He waves an arm over his head and says, “This was my big gamble.”

Stronach also had this vision of going beyond any semblance of a traditional mall. For no reason other than because he wanted to see it happen, Stronach spent $30 million to install a statue of a Pegasus standing astride a dragon. It stands, 11 stories tall, in the north parking lot. At 715 tons, it weighs three times more than the Statue of Liberty.

The idea behind it was simple, he says. He wanted a statue that would honor horses and lead Gulfstream to become an international destination for equestrian people. “Call it a trademark, call it a destination. When people look at it, they will say, wow, that’s crazy,” he says. He got the idea of a Pegasus from Greek mythology and then added the dragon. “Every movie you go to, it’s good guys against the bad guys. So it’s a Pegasus against a dragon.”

Stronach also insists on keeping his mostly occupied village unique, not just with chain stores you’d find anywhere. Which is why you’ll find store owner Stuart Norman and his pet macaw Ragamuffin. Norman moved from the Aventura Mall to a Gulfstream storefront next to Williams-Sonoma. He fills his Village Squire clothier with things that are colorful, feel good to the touch, and are not found anywhere else in town.

“Take a peek around and you can see it’s pretty special. We carry beautiful things,” Norman says as I check out the leather suit jackets. He looks like a rock star of a certain age, with feathered hair reaching his shoulders and pleather jeans that fit as well as they might have in the Nixon administration. “We sell to an ageless person. They might have a few years on them, but they’re still young.”

It’s nearly happy hour when Norman gives a tour of his place, and he offers a few ideas of where to go next. Happy hour is big at Gulfstream. The Rok: Brgr outpost attracts largely a younger crowd for jalapeño poppers and lobster corn dogs. Or there’s Brio, where specials on drinks and small plates fill nearly every chair for every happy hour. It’s a sharply dressed crowd at Brio of empty nesters and the second-time-single.

As the happy hours are getting started, the Gulfstream horse track is running its last race of the day. I walk over to catch the final run. The owners of the winning horse are led behind a rope line to greet the dirt-splattered jockey. Standing beside them, as he does for every race, is the impeccably dressed Victor Sanchez.

Officially, Sanchez is called the track’s Clerk of Scales. He has worked for Gulfstream for 48 years. The job means he’s in charge of weighing the jockeys before and after the race for the official record, but he’s also in charge of making sure the jockeys are on time, fed, and generally happy. “I’m the jock manager,” he jokes after the winner’s circle photos are taken.

Sanchez is wearing a black fedora with a white stripe, a perfect match for his white and black guayabera shirt and black dress pants. He looks out of a photo of a Cuban casino, circa 1950s. We walk to the jockey room, and Sanchez explains that Gulfstream’s race-watching crowd is largely separate from the happy-hour-then-dinner crowd. “Oh, this side? It’s mostly people who love the races. And that side? It’s mostly people who want to come out and have a good meal, have a good time,” he says.

Back on the Other Side, past the partially-inside-partially-outside bars crowded with people, is Sirona Fine Art, a gallery you just simply wouldn’t expect to find. It was entirely Stronach’s idea.

Back in 2013, Stronach approached Tim Smith, his favorite New York City art dealer, and told Smith he should move to Gulfstream. Smith, who has been buying art for Stronach for years, knew as soon as he heard the request that it would be his future. “Whenever Frank asks for something to happen, he expects it’s going to happen, and soon,” Smith says.

So Smith opened an 8,000-square-foot gallery at Gulfstream. He had told Stronach he wasn’t going to compromise on the challenging art he had always specialized in, and he didn’t hold back. During my tour, Smith’s gallery featured a show celebrating the female form, made up mostly of tasteful nudes by well-known artists from across the globe. “I’ve had people walk in here and nearly spit in my face when they see these, I’m not going to lie,” Smith says. “But this is art, and it’s meant to bring about reactions, good and bad, and if we’re doing that, we’re succeeding.”

Like it or hate it, no doubt the works here are the kind that’ll grab the attention of the art world. Consider, right in the entrance, the massive sculpture by Wesley Wofford of a woman with her arms bent up around her head. After Smith points it out, I study it for a while, trying to figure out the artist’s intention. Maybe it’s an expression of triumph or exasperation, in conflict with the world around her.

Or maybe the statue is like a woman made from clay who’s just coming to life, stretching into existence, the bold creation of one man.

If You Go

Adena Grill

Lavish beyond what you’d expect at any mall, Adena Grill looks like a cross between a downtown loft and a chic mountain château. The plates are just as pretty. The headliner, though is the beef, said to come from the central Florida cattle ranches of owner Frank Stronach himself.

900 Silks Run, No. 1740, Hallandale Beach, 954-464-2333, adenagrill.com

Frankey’s Sports Bar

Far more modern and sleek than your average sports bar, Frankey’s is aiming higher. Its menu boasts a farm-to-table approach with locally sourced ingredients when possible, and the original murals on the wall look collector-worthy. Horseracing dominates here, and machines allow diners to place bets on simulcast races.

900 Silks Run, No. 1720,
Hallandale Beach,
954-464-2333, frankeysbar.com
.

The Village at
Gulfstream Park

501 S. Federal Highway, Hallandale Beach, 954-378-0900, thevillageatgulfstreampark.com.

Brio Tuscan Grille

601 Silks Run, No. 1205, Hallandale Beach,
954-362-1600, brioitalian.com.

Crate & Barrel

601 Silks Run, No. 1290, Hallandale Beach,
954-458-2222, crateandbarrel.com.

III Forks

601 Silks Run, No. 1130, Hallandale Beach,
954-457-3920, iiiforks.com.

Rok: Brgr

601 Silks Run, No. 1210, Hallandale Beach,
954-367-3970, rokbrgr.com.

Sirona Fine Art

601 Silks Run, No. 1240, Hallandale Beach, 954-454-9494, sironafineart.com.

Village Squire Featuring Stuart Norman,

601 Silks Run, No. 1310, Hallandale Beach,
954-589-2360.

West Elm 

601 Silks Run, No. 810, Hallandale Beach, 954-457-3363, westelm.com.

Yard House

601 Silks Run, No. 1490, Hallandale Beach, 954-454-9950,
yardhouse.com.

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