Ralph Strangis generally operated behind the scenes, as an attorney, businessman, racing commissioner, horse owner or fan, yet when he died last August he left a mark on just about any enterprise he had undertaken.
He was valued and respected for his expertise in a variety of endeavors, and it became apparent upon his death that he would not easily be replaced, if at all.
He was highly effective as an attorney at settling disputes. Instead of taking sides or trying to resolve matters on his own, he often directed the parties to settle differences on their own, with remarkable success.
As a horse owner, he had success in the early years of Minnesota racing in a partnership with businessmen and high profile sports executives. As a fan, he simply enjoyed racing, and introduced the sport to his children on racing vacations.
He also handled legal matters for the construction of two stadiums for Minnesota sports teams, and was an avid sports fan himself.
On Saturday evening he will be inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Strangis always conducted business in a setting that he controlled from the outset by establishing guidelines and then holding the parties involved to those expectations. He was an efficient and fair arbiter and helped guide two major decisions beneficial to racing in both cases. He was a dominant factor in the ouster of the Ladbroke Racing Corp., that led to the closure of the track as Canterbury Downs in 1992, a decision that ultimately saved the sport. Later, as chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission, he helped direct an agreement between the racetrack and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community at Mystic Lake that stabilized purses and racing over a ten-year period.
“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.”
Among Strangis’ 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 Eclipse 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.”
by Jim Wells