The horse race is one of the oldest competitive sports in history, with a long and complicated history. It started as a primitive contest of speed and stamina between two horses and gradually evolved into a complex spectacle with large fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money. Yet its basic concept remains unchanged: whichever horse crosses the finish line first wins.
The earliest written manual on the care, feeding, and training of a horse dates from about 1500 bc in Asia Minor. In ancient times, chariot races and bareback (mounted) races were held during the Olympic Games, with the latter dating back at least to the 8th or 9th century bc. The Greek poet Homer wrote a full description of such a chariot race in his Iliad, dated to the late 9th or early 8th century bc.
Today, thoroughbred horse racing is a global industry generating billions of dollars in wagering annually. While the sport is celebrated by spectators who wear elegant clothes, savor mint juleps, and cheer on their favorite horses, behind the glossy facade are gruesome injuries, illegal drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The equine athletes are often whipped so hard and fast that they develop traumatic brain injuries, bleed out of their lungs, and die from hemorrhage.
As the pack ran through the clubhouse turn, War of Will, that year’s Preakness champion, was ahead by a length, with Mongolian Groom and McKinzie close behind. The horses ran with a kind of hypnotic smoothness that made the crowd roar. But it was a noisy crowd, with working-class men shouting curses in Spanish and Chinese.
At the front of the pack, jockey Abel Cedillo rode his mount, the chestnut-colored Mongolian Groom, to a quick lead in the clubhouse stretch. But on the far turn, the horses began to tire, and the jockey had to use his whip to keep them moving.
By the time the horses reached the finish line, it was a photo finish. A special camera captures a picture of each horse as it crosses the line. This is then processed and analyzed to determine who won the race. If there is a clear winner, the official result is announced, but if a race is very close and it appears that either horse may have crossed the line first, the finish is examined by stewards and patrol judges who look for signs of rule violations.
The proponents of the horse race approach to selecting a new CEO argue that it can bring a number of benefits to an organization beyond simply picking the most qualified leader. For example, it demonstrates the board’s confidence in the company’s leadership development processes and its ability to nurture high performers up through a series of critical roles so that they attain the competencies and seasoning necessary for the top job.
But the board and current CEO should carefully consider whether their culture and organizational structure are suited to an overt competition for the position. And if they choose to go with the horse race, they should also be aware of the potential costs and downsides, including disruptions in the business.