DayJuly 2, 2024

The Dangers of a Horse Race

A horse race is an organized competition in which riders compete on horses over dedicated courses, often incorporating hurdles. In the United States, horse racing is a popular pastime with a long and proud tradition, and it generates millions in betting revenues each year. It has also been a source of controversy, as critics have linked the sport to gambling and animal cruelty.

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred racing lies a world of drugs, injuries and gruesome breakdowns. Horses in races are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and even illegal electric-shock devices—at speeds that can cause pulmonary hemorrhage, broken bones, ripped tendons and severed spinal columns. Those that don’t die of heart failure or a crippling breakdown are killed for their meat or used for breeding.

Breeding 1,000-pound thoroughbreds with massive torsos and spindly legs is a recipe for disaster. Horses do not reach full maturity—that is, the bones of their necks and spines have fused—until they are 6 years old. The typical racehorse, however, is thrust into intensive training at 18 months and raced at age 2—the rough equivalent of a first-grader. Many horses die from cardiovascular collapse, or a failed heart; others are killed by a collision with another horse or the track itself. The most common cause of death, however, is a fatal collapse in blood flow from the brain to the lungs. Other causes of death include a fractured neck, severed spines, ruptured ligaments and shattered limbs, sometimes with only skin holding the limbs together.

Those that do make it to the starting gate are pushed into a tight group, and they are jockeyed to keep them together. Horses that aren’t in the lead are whipped, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, to encourage them to outrun their opponents. Many trainers use powerful legal steroids to help their horses run faster, and veterinary staff oversee the drug testing. Nevertheless, the testing system is often too slow and the penalties too weak to catch violations.

The result is that the favored horse is beaten into second place by a more talented and experienced candidate, usually one who has worked on the track for several years. Despite its shortcomings, the horse race remains a powerful management tool that can help companies identify and groom promising leaders and bring them up through a series of critical roles through which they gain the competencies, experience and seasoning to lead.

But if it is not managed carefully, the horse race can be a destructive force that hurts company performance and hampers innovation. That’s why many directors are intensely fearful of a protracted succession horse race and strive mightily to limit the length of the contest. The best boards adopt strategies that help to mitigate the negative effects of a horse race, and they cultivate a culture in which everyone embraces the competition for the top job. The worst boards treat the process as a necessary evil and do little to improve it.