What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a close competition, often in which competitors are competing to win an award or position. The term can also be used in the context of political contests. During elections, when the media and candidates focus on mudslinging and hyping their opponents, the actual issues at stake can get lost in the horse race theatrics. In fact, research shows that voters and the news industry suffer when journalists concentrate on horse race coverage instead of policy matters.

The first equine races were match contests between two or at most three horses, but pressure by the public produced events with larger fields of runners and rules to determine eligibility for racing. Horses were classified by age, sex and birthplace, and races developed based on distances and prize money. Claiming races were designed to provide opportunities for horses that were not quite fast enough to compete at higher levels. These races allow horses that have been trained to run at a specific level but have not won more than a certain amount of money to participate in a race. The claiming system provides a risk-reward situation that can benefit trainers and owners.

In modern horse races, trainers are heavily encouraged to push their horses beyond their limits, in order to attract wagers and to increase the odds of winning a race. Consequently, many of these animals are injured, and sometimes die. Horses can die from cardiovascular collapse, or heart failure; they can bleed out of their lungs (a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage); or be crushed to death by other horses or the track itself. They can have broken necks, shattered spines and ruptured ligaments. Injured horses are sometimes saved by surgery, but even so-called healthy and fit horses are not invincible.

While some executives and governance observers are apprehensive about the classic succession “horse race,” others believe that it can be a powerful way to identify and select a strong, capable leader for a company. Proponents point to the success of such companies as GE, GlactoSmithKline and Abbott Laboratories, all of which have used this approach. They argue that the best companies cultivate a culture of competitiveness and high performance, and that overt competition for the CEO role can encourage the right kind of behavior.

However, boards should consider carefully whether a horse race is compatible with their organization’s culture and organizational structure. In a tightly knit and cross-functional team, for example, an overt competition for the top job might be disruptive. In addition, the board should be aware of its internal leadership development processes and decide whether the executive that emerges from a horse race will be suitable for the needs of the company at that time. If not, the board might prefer to pursue a more collaborative approach. In these cases, the goal would be to develop several internal candidates to vie for a top position. Then the board might select one to become chief executive officer.