Why I Cry During Horse Racing

I have always been a sports fan.  I like soccer, basketball, baseball, football, hockey, tennis, UFC.. you name it.  Although I was not raised around horses and the track, horse racing for some reason draws me in.  There is something about it that is so intriguing and attractive I cannot help but watch.  Today is the Preakness Stakes and I recently realized how similar horse racing and the startup ecosystem are.   Maybe now I am starting to understand why I am so attracted to this sport.

The winner is almost always a surprise

Once a year the Triple Crown tugs at the heart of the sporting community.  As sports fans, deep down we want to root for the underdog.  We want to see an upset.  When those 20 horses line up at the starting gate we have no idea which horse will actually step across the finish line before any of the other horses.  Yes, you can take the odds.  But how often do those odds actually play out accordingly?  I use this racing analogy because success as a startup is pretty much exactly the same as success on the race track.  Starting out, we have no idea who will emerge as the “winner”.  Talent, funding, product, iteration, attitude, economic climate all influence the outcome of the race.  It is always a surprise, isn’t it?   MySpace looked like the breadwinner only to have Facebook clean its shorts around the second turn of the race.   That’s incredible.  Who knew?  I guess that’s why we play the game.

The winner almost always has to adjust their tactics mid-race

If you watch any horse race, you will notice the race is actually won by the jockey, not the horse.  The jockey (the CEO) observes the dynamically changing environment, quickly calculates their options and immediately decides to direct the horse (the company and product) towards the best route for victory.   This is no small task and requires tremendous skill to perform under pressure.  They learn to Pivot at the best possible time.   The word pivot is probably used way to often to describe the transition from one strategy to another in an effort to move a business forward.  Yet I think it is such a great word and such an important tactic.  Great Leaders understand when conditions have become suboptimal, and possess the wherewithal to quickly make necessary changes in order to be successful.

The winner almost always has a storied past

One thing is for sure when I watch these events.  I will tear up.  I tear up more during “extraordinary feats of competition” than any Rom-Com (romantic comedy) that I must watch with a girlfriend.  Why would I tear up during a horse race?  I tear up because the obvious time and effort, blood, sweat and tears put in by the jockey, the breeder and the horse.  There is always a story of triumph over insurmountable circumstances.  And they didn’t quit.  I am so moved by extraordinary accomplishment, maybe because I hope I will one day experience the feeling.  And just as they put in this effort, so does the startup founder.   It is truly an amazing accomplishment to take a seemingly impossible idea and turn it into a network of over 600 million people.  Or leaving Russia as a child for the USA to eventually pursue your dream and become a successful entrepreneur.  Or, after almost 10 years of grinding away not being the darling of the internet, going public and watching your stock double the first day on the market.  For that matter, launching any product and achieving a profitability in-s0-much-as just enough to sustain your business operations.  Those are great stories worth a tear or two.

And I guess that is why I like Horse Racing.

66 thoughts on “Why I Cry During Horse Racing

  1. You wrote: “When those 20 horses line up at the starting gate we have no idea which horse will actually step across the finish line before any of the other horses. Yes, you can take the odds. But how often do those odds actually play out accordingly? ”

    In general, across all horse races, we actually do know how those odds play out accordingly. The post-time favorite wins about a third of the time and the odds are a good predictor overall of a horse’s relative chances of winning. (Horses that go to post at even money win about half the time, etc. There’s a bit more randomness in the Kentucky Derby, but even there you ignore the fundamentals facts of odds at your peril.) Obviously in any given race the longshot can win and the favorite can finish last, but “investors” in horse races would go broke very quickly betting longshots all the time, as they would if they just bet randomly.

    Also, I agree in general with your point about the ability to change tactics being key, but not for the reason you state. Jockeys are forced to adapt to the running style of the horse, not the other way around. For example, Animal Kingdom can only win one way, by coming from behind. That’s why horse racing tends to favor horses that have tactical speed. Horses that run only from the front, or only from behind, are at a disadvantage when the race sets up in a negative way for them, as it did for Animal Kingdom in the Preakness. Like a good jockey on a horse with little chance to win, the best CEO in charge of a bad team with a poor business idea can change tactics all he wants and it will make little difference.

    I see the points you’re trying to make, but investors in startups, like horse racing, will always come out better in the end if they focus on finding the factors that they know are good predictors of success over the long run.

    • Mike. Very good analysis of my perspective. You have come from another angle I did not initially observe, but now that you put it in that context, I do agree. “Finding the factors that we know are good predictors of success over the long run” – words to live by. Thanks.

  2. I love that you truly care about the “storied past.” I think that’s an aspect that many fans may be missing — it seems like the focus is always on the race itself, rather than how the horses and trainers and owners and jockeys got there in the first place.

    I enjoyed this post — thank you!


    Mikalee’s latest post, “My Big Fat Poop Wedding,” is at http://mikaleebyerman.wordpress.com/

  3. Nice post! Great Analogy that can have many different angels. I also love horse racing and have been lucky enough to experience it behind the scenes and see some of those struggles and triumphs first hand. There is nothing more exciting to me than to hear those thundering hooves!

  4. Thanks for this post – saw it on Freshly Pressed! I grew up watching the Triple Crown races and have always loved watching horses run. It makes me cry too, mainly because I know those horses and their jockeys are loving every single second, every stride, every breath. There is such heart there and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

    • Me, too. The jockey is important, yes, but without the right horse, without the right heart, no jockey can win on just any horse. That horse runs that beautiful race because *s/he wants to.* It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, it’s what *matters* to that horse. It’s love on four legs. It’s the desire to put it all out there for the sheer joy of it. And that’s what makes *me* cry at every single horse race I watch.

  5. I can relate VERY well to your emotions when it comes to horse racing.

    I simply *cannot* watch, read or often even think about anything having to do with Secretariat without tearing up and sometimes flat-out crying like something awful just happened. I can’t really put a finger on what it is specifically, but I have the most ridiculous emotional attachment to a horse that died before I even turned five years old. When I was little, I had a VHS tape about Secretariat (from ESPN’s Life & Times collection) and I watched it over and over again throughout the years. I loved that tape (I also grew up riding and showing horses so I did have an advanced interest in them beyond typical childhood admiration) and I would cry right on cue each time when the video was wrapping up and “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx played throughout clips of Secretariat’s life and racing career.

    I’m actually crying right now just from leaving this comment, ha… Good thing this isn’t a webcam response!

    So, yeah. I can’t figure out if horse racing, Secretariat in particular, takes me back to those days of my childhood and I tear up out of feelings of nostalgia, or if there’s something more to it. But I do love the sport, especially the behind-the-scenes story of each horse and jockey that goes far beyond the betting table.

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  7. Very Nice. FP congratulations. Nice for Mike to weigh in with the goods. What I enjoyed was the comparison motivation lesson and that like most Americans and all children, you recognised the parallel and let it inspire your life into your adulthood. So, Congratulations on your well-done Life. That you feel you should pay this forward is a very humane thing to do. I’ll remember what you have done with perseverance in your life and hopefully, tag it in mine. Have a great FP day!

  8. Did you realize that many many horses die just getting to that gate. The ones that race are the fastest, but consider what happened to the slowest. The slowest are often maimed from being trained at too young of an age (back & leg problems) and are sold to meat factories in Mexico. Then, the Ones that do make it to the gate are litterally running for their lives. If they don’t win then their fate merely becomes one of the many “slow.”. More information is available on animal lover websites-a google search will yield a plethora of articles.

  9. I think proof is in the pudding on us all as children recognising effort and the end reward, by all the girls, Calsta, Mikalee, Summer, Myself…….Horseracing may have been our first large example of working hard for something. Since we were children, that they were animals, caught our attention. Very cool reminder. I think we are all antropology geeks at heart! looks like everyone is emotional just thinking on this subject. Amazing and a good thing *-*

  10. What a wonderful post (and congrats on Freshly Pressed!). Horse racing has always spoke to me as well – something about the amount of heart that the jockeys and horses put into each race. There is no racing halfheartedly. The horse wouldn’t think of it – every single one of them are in it to win. They were bred and born to to win races, that is what they love and they have no hesitation in achieving victory. Which is a lesson in itself: The only way you are going to be a success is to know it that you are and act accordingly.

  11. What a wonderful post. There is so much blood, sweat and tears that makes up horseracing, and you captured it so well in your post. If you really want to tear up, watch Personal Ensign in the 1988 Breeders Cup Distaff to see what true heart and courage is all about.

  12. I absolutely love horse racing and it’s great to hear someone else does too (it’s quite rare nowadays). I stereotypically fell in love with horses as a young girl, but horse racing has stuck with me. The wonderful book Seabiscuit exemplified the glamour, the grit, and the sentiment of this sport. Although today’s horse racing has fallen from the glory of Seabiscuit’s era, it is still one of the most historic and beautiful sports in my opinion.

    As a fellow entrepreneur, though, I must say it was quite creative of you to relate horse racing to business! Well done.

  13. Brought back memories of going to the Arlington Million near Chicago as a young adult with my mom. We never knew what we were doing, we never bet more than $20. and we almost always won something. But it didn’t matter, it was the whole exciting experience. Great blog.

  14. Nice work!
    I like to think it is the horse that wins the race and it is a jockey’s race to lose.
    The rules of racing declare horses winners and jockeys the riders of winners.
    Strategy, instinct, experience, skill, confidence and luck play important parts in the ability of the jockey to ride both the course and the race as it unfolds. Luck is a great athlete. Luck can be dumb or it can be “angels” and it can be made. Question: What color and pattern silks would you pick as an owner?

    Now, about that storied past…

  15. Some elegant comments here. Just like to share with you all a track I visited for the first time on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland. A city bus from Edinburgh for a couple of dollars gets you to within two minutes’ walk to the track. Musselburgh race track is a gem. Check it out. I attended on “family” day and had so much fun. Quite the pretty spot, too. Thanks.

  16. Well written post about horseracing and I agree that even with the odds, we don’t have any idea who will cross that finish line first. That’s why it’s a horserace and that’s why one takes a chance with a bet. Since my family owned a horse farm in Virginia, I grew up racing horses, turf and track, and enjoy watching these magnificent animals, extraordinary jockeys (they are the bravest athletes) and the interaction between them. Horses love to run and love the excitement. Great post and yes, I tear up too!

  17. Love horses. Not that into entrepreneurial issues. What I did really, really like about your post is your writing style and how you linked two totally different topics so beautifully. I was captivated and read the whole thing — even though I quickly discovered the article wasn’t really about horses at all. Congrats on being FP’d.

  18. This is the real fact of the horse racing industry and the real reason any one should be crying. This so called sport, along with dog racing, does not appreciate the animal after it has given it’s heart and health…once the animal is used up it is most frequently inhumanely destroyed…this is a shameful way to treat any living being, now that is something to cry about.

  19. I cry because most race horses that no longer make money are considered useless and sold or auctioned off to the horse meat industry, and their lives end in a horrific, painful, most likely fearful way they do not deserve and those that made money off them, should send them to an animal sanctuary and fund their retirement so they can live with dignity and in a humane way they deserve.

    • Kind of what I was thinking. I regard the big horse races as just one more crowd to deal with. Horses, well, I regard them as pets. You bet they can have goals, too–just watch how some of them compete, like they’d run till their hearts burst. But mainly, they are living creatures who might have had other plans for themselves. And yes, should be retired, not slaughtered.

      None of this has anything to do with the validity of Nick’s comparison of racing to business.

      Business ain’t exactly humane all the time, either. :)TX

  20. I feel the same way when I watch the Olympics. I don’t know these people. I don’t even watch any of the sports they are participating in on a regular basis (s0me, not at all). But I watch it for the same reason as you watch horse racing — to see the efforts of these athletes who have worked for a large part of their lives to become the best in their field. To become the ulitmate winners of their sport. To be acknowledged for their efforts, their atleticism, their perseverence (sometimes, maybe even most times, in the hardest of circumstances), and their spirit is just so overwhelming at times that it most certainly will bring me to tears.

    It makes me want to go out and put best in everything I do. I want to try harder in my life after watching these events. I want to be a better mother, and better worker, a better friend… a better everything. I get inspired and have hope that I can overcome any difficulty that crosses my path to be a winner in life as these athletes have done in their sport.

    Therefore, I can see the relationship between business and horse racing you connect here in your posting. And I can feel the emotion. Great post!

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  22. This is a FANTASTIC post, Nick. I’m not into to sports or horse racing, per say, but I enjoyed what I’d read here so much that I just subscribed to you blog…Keep ‘em coming!

  23. I live near Pimlico racetrack and have seen the horses running. It’s pretty awesome. Makes your heart vibrate with the pounding of their hooves.
    I like your comparative study..but I have seen a horse put down with a fracture after a race right on the track.
    That brought a boatload of tears from many an eye present. That will change perspective.

  24. As a horsewoman, and the owner of an ex-racehorse, I tear up during horse races for two reasons (prepare yourself for the cold, hard reality of horse racing). First, yes, the work that it takes to develop and maintain an equine athlete takes so much dedication, patience and persistence. The trainer must learn about a horse that he will likely never sit on so he must rely on collaboration with his jockey. Here’s the second part that makes me tear up (the part I warned you to prepare yourself for). Racehorses begin running at the age of 2 when their bones aren’t finished hardening and when they haven’t even finished growing. A breeder, owner, trainer must send countless horses to the track before they have one that makes it to televised races like the Triple Crown events. On its way to those races, while running in other races at other tracks, if I horse gets a career-ending injury, the breeders, owners, trainers don’t exactly put the nice pony out to pasture to breed or just live out their days cropping grass. There are countless horses that show up in kill pens ever day that didn’t cut it at the track or got an injury that made it impossible for them to stay there. Some end up living pretty hard lives pulling the Amish around, pounding hard pavement day in and day out (not something horse joints were designed for), rail thin. Others end up getting bought by the meat man, other get shipped to Canada and Mexico to be put in a can or off to Japan where they are shipped in cargo planes because they are a ‘delicacy’. If they are lucky, and I mean really lucky, they end up with people like me who turn them into show horses where they jump, do dressage or three day eventing. But even that demand has thinned greatly because people want European horses these days. And, because the horse was started as a two year old and had countless miles of impact stressed on his joints, he’ll likely have arthritis by the time he is anywhere between four and eight years old. Horses live into their twenties.

    The part that kills me the most is that the horse has no clue. He shows up for work every day on a bucket full of feed and a bag of hay for pay and he’s delighted. They have so much heart and try their asses off to please and they can earn a lot of people a lot of money. Many people in those syndicates who own a part of a racehorse have no clue what happens to that horse when he goes bye-bye from the track. Personally, I wish racing would go away altogether.

    Sorry for the downer but I’ve seen too much behind the curtain.

  25. great blog! for a summer, i worked at a horse track and it was amazing. they’re amazing animals and i have a new respect for the trainers, owners, horses, and jockeys.

  26. I like the subject of your blog post. It reminds me of the time when I was a kid growing up: whenever I’d watch the Melbourne Cup race at primary school, I’d almost cry “how can those riders be so cruel and whip those poor horsies just to win a race?!” 🙂

  27. Hi

    Your piece makes for good reading and i can relate with the analogy. Though i am not an avid follower of the sport, i enjoyed the angle from whence you came.. Horse- Jockey- Race track- Daily temperature….etc may affect a race(venture)… it all depends on the instance in time. If you had written a piece factoring every possible permutation i might have fallen asleep. I think i love this piece the way it is, allowing for art and humanity to seep through rather than a purely empirical piece.. Very gracious response to a valid critique

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