Horse racing has evolved from a primitive contest of speed and stamina to a spectacle involving vast fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but its basic concept remains unchanged. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins.
A board considering a horse race to choose its next chief executive should consider whether the organization is suited to this type of overt leadership contest, and also adopt strategies that can help minimize the potential disruptions. If the competition is tense, not only does the winning company lose the strong leaders who ran in the race but it may also alienate deeper members of the senior management team who aligned themselves with an unsuccessful candidate.
In the backstretch, a group of eleven horses settled into position behind the grandstand. War of Will, the winner of that year’s Preakness, hugged the rail and held a slight lead around the clubhouse turn as Mongolian Groom and McKinzie closed fast.
It would have been a miserable place to be in the middle of this pack. The track was muddy, the dirt a thick, deep dust that kicked up on every stride and left horse butts in your face. If you’d been on one of those horses, your stomach would have hurt by the time you reached the top of the stretch, and you’d be ready to die.
And yet, even though horse racing’s image was tarnished by scandals about drugs and safety, fans kept coming to the tracks. But in 2000, only 1 to 2 percent of Americans listed horse racing as their favorite sport (McDaniel and Vander Velden). It had to compete with professional and collegiate team sports, and it failed to enlarge its customer base by embracing television, so the number of people who showed up at the track declined even as the industry grew.
Even so, there were many people in the racing world who believed that if they just pushed hard enough and were good enough, they could get this industry back on its feet. Some, like the trainer of a Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion named Big Brown, boasted publicly about using a legal, powerful steroid to give his horse an edge. The Jockey Club eventually cracked down, but not because of concern about damage to the horses but because of the unfairness of cheating bettors.
In fact, the most serious problem in racing is not cheating but a much more widespread indifference to the welfare of the horses who run. Patrick Battuello, the director of the activist group Horseracing Wrongs, argues that racing’s image is “the Big Lie.” Its athletes are drugged and whipped, trained and raced too young, and, according to his estimates, ten thousand American thoroughbreds will be killed each year.
It’s a tragedy for the racing business and for the thousands of loyal, dedicated customers who go to the track each year to watch their heroes run. But if there’s going to be any hope for this once-mighty industry, its supporters will have to wake up to the fact that they are part of an ugly truth: horse racing is not healthy, or humane, or fair.