The Horse Race Approach to Corporate America

The race to become the next leader of a public company often becomes a horse race, with executives jockeying for position and vying for the benefit of being seen as the best candidate. A well-run horse race can help select a capable new CEO, but it can also cause disruptions throughout the organization and affect the long-term performance of the business. The challenge for directors is to decide whether the horse race approach fits the organization and, if so, how to conduct the contest in order to minimize disruptions and a negative impact on business momentum.

The horse race approach has a long history in the United States and around the world. Some companies are perfectly suited to it, but others find that the contest stifles creativity and can have detrimental effects on employee morale and the ability to execute strategic plans.

Despite its reputation as a sport of gentlemen, Thoroughbred racing is a dangerous business. Behind a romanticized facade of fancy outfits and mint juleps, horses are forced to sprint-often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices-at speeds so high that they regularly sustain injuries and even hemorrhage from their lungs.

As a bettors eyes wander across the walking ring before a race, they search for signs that a horse is ready to run: a bright coat that glistens in the pinkish light and ripe with just the right amount of sweat and muscled excitement. The sway of a horse’s body, the hypnotic smoothness of its stride, the flick of its ears.

In the last few decades, the industry has taken steps to improve safety and reduce accidents, but many of these measures focus on keeping humans away from the track. The true test of horse racing’s concern for its animals, however, will come when it takes difficult and unpopular measures to put the horses first. These might include a complete overhaul of the breeding shed and aftercare, caps on races and length of careers, and a return to more natural and equine-friendly lifestyles for the animals who race.

A group of scholars at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication found that newspapers owned by corporate chains are more likely to frame elections as a horse race than those owned by individual owners. The scholars analyzed a sample of newspaper coverage of governor and U.S. Senate races in 2004, 2006, and 2008. They found that the horse-race framing was most prevalent during close races and in the weeks leading up to election day.

An auxiliary starting gate is used to accommodate more horses than can fit into the main starting gate. A horse that is placed into the auxiliary starting gate must pass two official inspections before the race begins. These inspections include a pre-race urine test and a post-race blood test to determine its lactic acid level, which is a marker of the condition of the horse. The race is halted if a horse has an elevated lactic acid level.