The Horse Race and Its Dangerous Side Effects

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of drug abuse, injuries and gruesome breakdowns. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are forced to run around tracks made of hard-packed dirt at speeds that often exceed 30 miles per hour, often while carrying people on their backs. Injuries and deaths are common. When a horse dies, protocol calls for a necropsy and a review of race records to determine what went wrong. In the past, many horses were slaughtered when they ceased winning or became too injured to continue competing; more recently, however, a growing number of races have been abandoned due to rising breeding fees and purses, which make it uneconomical to breed and raise horses for racing purposes beyond their prime at age five.

For decades, most thoroughbreds received a morning injection of Lasix, a diuretic noted on the racing form with a boldface “L.” The drug is said to prevent pulmonary bleeding that occurs under hard running, and it can be helpful in identifying serious injuries. But the side effect of Lasix is a horse that expels epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds worth, in some cases.

A trainer’s goal is to fill out a race card, so horses that aren’t in the best shape may have to be run to keep the field full. In this way, trainers are motivated to push their horses too far. They may even force veterinarians to scratch horses that they think are too far off for a safe race.

Despite these risks, some horses are able to recover and continue their careers after an injury or a breakdown. The horses’ owners must pay to feed and board them, and some of their earnings are returned to the track. The monetary return from a winning horse is distributed among the top finishers, with a larger share to the winner and smaller shares to the second and third place finishers.

Proponents of the horse race approach argue that overt competition for a top job encourages the organization to groom high performers through a succession of functional assignments, stretch opportunities and other challenges that lead to eventual leadership roles. They also point to evidence that the strategy has worked at companies such as General Electric and Procter & Gamble, where several candidates have competed for the top job in a relatively short time frame. Those who oppose the horse race approach are concerned that overly long contests for the CEO position can stifle business momentum. They also worry that a horse race could demoralize employees by causing them to feel that the company is in trouble, and they seek to limit the length of the contest. They are also concerned that the approach stifles creativity by forcing companies to wait for a “hero” to step up and save the day.