Stories - Reflections

Manage People Like Racehorses

Should managers be treated like high-performance racehorses? This top trainer has experience with both. A Harvard Business Review excerpt. by D. Wayne Lukas and Julia Kirby

It’s May, and for any American fan of Thoroughbred racing that means one thing: the Triple Crown. The first of the races, the Kentucky Derby, was run May 1, followed in short order by the Preakness Stakes on May 15 and the Belmont Stakes on June 5. What better time, then, to compare notes on management with famed horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas?

No one has trained more winners of Triple Crown races than Lukas—his 13th victory with Commendable in the 2000 Belmont Stakes tied the record of training legend “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. And that’s just the beginning of a long list of accolades attached to his name. His 17 Breeders’ Cup wins make him the all-time winningest trainer in that prestigious series of races, too. In 14 different years, he has been the top trainer in the United States in terms of earnings; his lifetime earnings are now approaching an astonishing $250 million.

Although Lukas’s accomplishments are undeniable, he remains a controversial figure in his industry. Early on, he bucked long-standing traditions and came up with a program unlike any other trainer’s. His willingness to ship horses across the country to compete in fields where they had better chances of prevailing meant more victories, happier clients, and a reputation for success that brought him even better horses. The virtuous cycle, as many of Lukas’s fellow trainers have learned, proved tough to beat.

But what wisdom can a horse trainer offer to a corporate manager? Let’s start with the fact that the very word “manage” has an equine origin. It comes from Latin, by way of the Italian word maneggiare, meaning “to handle, to train horses.” Beyond that, consider that Lukas’s challenge is to spot talent early and develop it into world-class form—despite the fact that the talent in question can be headstrong, sensitive, or, yes, even lazy. But does the connection go any further than etymology and metaphor? To find out, HBR senior editor Julia Kirby asked Lukas about his business model, strategy, client management—and, most of all, what it takes to cultivate winners. Their edited conversation follows.

Julia Kirby: To what extent are winning racehorses born rather than made? How much is your job about strategy—choosing the course for the horse—and how much is it about changing the horse by developing its talents?

D. Wayne Lukas: The most important ingredient, and a lot of people forget this, is the horse himself and his God-given talents. One of the biggest assets a trainer can have is a good eye in the selection process. Some people just have a knack for finding the unproven yearling at a sale, privately, or on a breeding farm. And I’ve been around other people who I thought were pretty good horsemen per se who just can’t see it in the young ones. You have to have a certain amount of vision—it’s like trying to find the next Michael Jordan in the eighth grade.

Now, once you’ve got that established—you’ve got a horse whose conformation is good, whose bloodlines are good, and who looks the part of the athlete—the next step is to develop his full potential. You have to be able to give him what he needs to get to the winner’s circle.

Q: And how do you determine what he needs?

A: First, you have to find out what he does best and what he can do best. Is he a sprinter? Can he run a middle distance? Does early speed confuse him? Or does he like early speed, and that builds his heart up and makes him bolder? Horses that prefer to follow, you sometimes have to train them to lead; those that want to lead, you sometimes have to train them to follow.

That’s one of the things that marks our program: We never give up on a horse.

What makes it so interesting is that they’re all different. What works for one doesn’t work for another. The biggest thing when you’re training horses is to be very observant. You must pick up on the little things. Everybody’s doing the big things; everybody is going to nail the aerobic heart rate and get the lung capacity up; they’re all going to get things right condition-wise. We all use the same feed companies, and the same veterinarians are available to everybody. And we all use the same blacksmiths, pretty much. So what’s the difference between one guy winning and the other guy just being there? It’s the small things. I can tell by looking at my horses if they’ve lost three or four pounds in two days without weighing them. Every little sign of their lack of energy or overenergy has to be observed and programmed into your thinking about what you will do the next day.

And you have to keep trying different things. That’s one of the things that marks our program: We never give up on a horse. We just keep trying and trying. We’ve got lots of cases to prove that. One example is Spain, who had had a very mediocre career when I got her. She had earned nothing. Now she’s the all-time money-winningest filly in the history of the breed. And the horse I won the Kentucky Derby with in 1999, Charismatic, was pretty much a failure early on in his career. I couldn’t get any kind of production out of him at all. In fact, it got to the point that I even ran him for a claiming price—twice. That meant, according to the rules of the race, that we put a price tag on the horse and anyone who was willing to pay the price could walk away with him. And nobody took him. That’s how poor his form was. But I kept trying different things.

Q: What eventually did the trick?

A: I finally said, “I think this horse is fat and lazy, but I’m going to get him dead fit. I’m going to ask him to do things that he wouldn’t dream of.” And I bore down on him, I drilled him, I treated him with tough love, if you want to call it that—and suddenly I had a fine-tuned athlete that went on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and almost won the Belmont. […]

Q: When you’re dealing with people, do you sometimes think they’re just like horses? Does it seem like it’s the same set of issues?

A: I think so. You have to know when to back off and when to bear down. When to kick ass, when to pat them on the back, when to hug them, when to chew them out. I think my assistants would tell you that they’ve never had their parents speak to them in the way I have on occasion. But they can make a lot of mistakes and I’ll overlook them. The only thing I really cannot tolerate is a lack of effort. And I don’t tolerate that very well with a horse, either. When it gets to that point, I have to say, Look, this horse is wasting my time. Let’s run him for a claiming tag. Or, this kid is wasting my time. I’m going to send him over to Baffert’s barn.

Q: What’s the thing you’re proudest of?

A: Well, we hold almost every record in racing, but in the past four or five years we have gained a reputation for turning out top assistants. At this point, I’ve got about eleven former assistants out there that are very successful in the business. And it’s getting so, if they come out of our program, people are just gobbling them up. In fact, they’re starting to gobble them up even before they get out of the program.

See, there’s no computer program or video you can buy that demonstrates how to train a horse to win the Kentucky Derby. There just aren’t any how-to books. It’s a trial-and-error, learn-by-experience profession, and a lot of it is handed down. But the problem is that a lot of the great old-timers don’t teach. They never have. My coaching background—I spent ten years as a teacher and a basketball coach—lets me do a lot more teaching than my colleagues.

Make no mistake: I’m competitive with all the trainers out there. This is still a game of experience, and I like to kick their asses whenever I can. I go after them every day—and I like to keep score, too, because that’s what motivates me. But to be truthful, I think the legacy is probably going to come down to turning out all those superstar young guys. Now we’re becoming just as famous for them as we are for our champions. I never thought that was where it was going to go, but it seems like it’s heading that way.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from “Passion for Detail: A Conversation with Thoroughbred Trainer D. Wayne Lukas,” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No. 5, May 2004.