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The End of the Horse Race

Horse races were once a popular sport, but the public’s appetite for them has waned. The sport’s leadership is redoubling efforts to improve safety and attract new audiences. But it’s still not enough to overcome a legacy of scandal, corruption, and cruelty.

The acrimony that surrounds racing is so thick that even hardheaded moneymen like the owners of Santa Anita and Saratoga are starting to worry. They know that the sport is not moving fast enough to meet modern safety standards and they are concerned about the future of their investments.

Almost every thoroughbred racer in America receives a drug called Lasix, which is noted on the race form with a bold-face “L.” It is given to horses before and during a race to prevent pulmonary bleeding that can occur during intense exercise. But the drug’s diuretic effect causes horses to expel epic amounts of urine-twenty or thirty pounds worth. And although random testing exists for the drug, trainers often over-medicate their horses, leading to overtraining and a broken down animal that is ultimately euthanized or sold at auction to slaughterhouses.

As the public became more aware of the issue, it demanded that the racetracks abide by stricter drug rules. The leaders of the industry responded by establishing a new independent regulatory body, which is scheduled to begin work in 2022. But it will take years to bring racing closer to the rest of the world in basic safety standards, and the current leadership at many tracks is unwilling to make the changes needed.

The settlers brought with them a taste for organized racing, and by the 1740s Virginia had more thoroughbred racetracks than any other American state. The first standardized races, known as the King’s Plates, were run in 1751 and required six-year-olds to carry 168 pounds in four-mile heats to be declared winners. Five- and four-year-olds soon joined the fray, and heats were reduced to two miles.

The settlers also introduced a new element to the sport, a betting angle that made it more of a gamble than a sporting event. Gambling was so prevalent that by the 1770s horse races had become a major part of the national economy, with betting accounting for about 50 percent of all wagers. But after the Civil War, the public’s interest in the sport waned, and by 2000 only 1 to 2 percent of Americans listed horse racing among their favorite sports. The industry tried to rekindle the flame with a huge marketing effort, but the sport’s image was already tarnished. It is not clear whether it will ever regain its former glory. The horse race approach to succession can be a great way to choose the best leader for a company, but the process must be carefully planned to avoid demoralization and disruption of the organization. The companies that succeed at this approach are those that cultivate a culture of competition for the top job and embrace the notion that a strong candidate will eventually emerge from the process.