By Jim Wells
Ralph Strangis typically impressed newly-made acquaintances the same way: ” What a nice guy,” they would say.
As they got to know him, those impressions expanded: “Never met anyone like him, so gracious, understanding and knowledgeable.”
Those who really knew him understood even more:
“So smart, what a businessman, what a head for the law.”
Yet, only the men and women in Minnesota’s horse racing industry understood his role in a Minnesota Racing Commission decision that they largely agreed saved the sport in Minnesota.
It is standard practice to eulogize a person in glowing terms and disregard the blemishes, yet that was not the case with Strangis, who died last August. He was a person friends, acquaintances and family described in the same terms they used when he was alive. Except, perhaps, for his own children, who had their private definition as youngsters. “We referred to him as a benevolent dictator,” said son Paul.
Strangis was a highly respected attorney, husband, father, grandfather and a racing fan to boot. He was a horse owner during the early days of Canterbury Downs and thereafter whenever he wasn’t serving two separate terms on the Minnesota Racing Commission, helping usher out the Ladbroke Racing Corp. in 1992, after it became clear that horse racing in Minnesota would not survive under that ownership.
“Really one of his remarkable accomplishments as a regulator was the leadership and ability he provided to back down Ladbroke,” said Canterbury Park CEO Randy Sampson. “It took a strong leader to take them on and let them know that the Racing Commission was not going to bend the rules and allow simulcasting without a commitment to live racing.”
Strangis’ unique style in a meeting was lauded by almost anyone in attendance and by the participants themselves. Time was of the essence to orderly discussion, and he demonstrated that repeatedly by preventing distractions from obtaining a foothold.
“I really liked that about him,” Sampson added. “I’ve never seen a guy run a meeting more efficiently than he did. It was remarkable how he could keep a meeting on track and keep it moving.”
The fifth race on Sunday has been dedicated to Strangis and will be run in his honor. He died last August at the age of 82. Among his survivors are his wife, Grace; children, Ralph, Jr., Paul, Jason and Anthea and his stepchildren, Sara Grace and Nathan, several grandchildren and countless friends and business associates.
Strangis had been a racing fan much of his life when the sport was ushered in for Minnesotans with the arrival of Canterbury Downs in 1985, and he was among the early horse owners who frequented the new facility to cheer on the stars of their stables.
Cachuma was a fan favorite in the 1980s, owned by Thoroughbreds, Inc., which included Minnesota Vikings general manager Mike Lynn, automobile dealer Jim Lupient and Strangis.
Cachuma ran with his head down, a distinguishing feature fans came to recognize and appreciate, particularly in the final sixteenth when his unique style was all the more on display.
“We all made money on Cachuma,” said Paul Strangis. “Win after win.”
Later, Ralph Strangis was involved as an owner with a Tom Metzen partnership .
Paul is still involved in racing as an owner, his love for the sport nurtured at the Southern California tracks as a youngster during trips there with his father and siblings.
“He was uniquely qualified (as a commissioner and later chairman) with his love of the sport,” said Sampson. “He always did what was right for the backside people and the horse. He made a unique contribution to horse racing, as chairman, and as an owner.”
Strangis was prohibited from owning horses while serving on the commission, but quickly reengaged when his terms expired, having helped regulate the sport with a participant’s understanding.
Jim Lane III, the acting chairman of the commission, got to know Strangis before serving on the commission with him. Lane, an attorney himself, was working at the time with North Ridge Farm and the late Franklin Groves, an Eclispse Award winning breeder, and trainer Carl Nafzger.
“I knew him (Strangis) as a horse owner and active participant along with Tom Metzen,” Lane said. “Ralph knew the racing business and liked it and was therefore a better informed regulator than perhaps people not exposed to racing.”
Strangis had other strengths that Lane says directed decisions in which he participated. “He was very interested in the two tracks (Canterbury Park and Running Aces) and their financial strength,” Lane added. “He was a wonderful businessman and attorney.”
Strangis, in fact, was described in certain accounts as the “legal architect” of Target Field for the Minnesota Twins and Allianz Field, home to the Minnesota United soccer team.
Strangis designated Lane as first vice chairman of the racing commission after becoming chairman and he continued in that role until Strangis died last year. Lane has been the acting chairman since.
Lane recalls two “big” problems “percolating” when Strangis rejoined the commission five or six years ago. “The purse underpayment at Running Aces and the dispute between that track and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association regarding the financial agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community,” he said. “Ralph was instrumental in solving both problems,” said Lane. “Those things tend to be forgotten.”
Commissioner Alan Gingold first met Strangis in 1973. “He was representing the company I worked for (Piper Jaffrey and Hopwood),” Gingold said.
“He was an extraordinary man, 70 percent lawyer, 70 percent businessman and 70 percent community activist.”
Gingold grew to know Strangis in new ways upon serving with him on the Commission. “He had a natural love for racing, the beauty of racing and the horses, which is true of most of the commissioners. They love horses,” Gingold said.
Gingold also cited Strangis’ ability to get people together, talking and solving their problems.
His appreciation for Strangis, having known him four and one-half decades might best be summed up in these comments:
“I think about him every day,” Gingold said. “He was larger than life, and I don’t expect to meet anybody like him.”