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How the horse racing industry develops high performing teams

Author:  Damian Hecker, Director of Learning & Development at Leaders of Evolution

Even if you’re not a fan of horse racing, if you had the pleasure of watching Winx scorch the soggy turf beneath her feet on Saturday at Randwick you surely must have been impressed.  Under the cover of typically gloomy Sydney Autumn Carnival skies, Australia’s new queen of the turf made it look like she was running on clouds whilst the rest of the pack laboured through a swamp.  You just giggle.  She’s that good.

Just like the iceberg rising out of the freezing Arctic waters, as spectators we are fortunate to watch in awe of this imposing figure.  What we see is the remarkable feat of the world’s best turf horse and Hugh Bowman, the man tasked with steering her to victory.

Yet as with the iceberg we are not privy to what lies underneath.  The layers, depth and volume that props up the majesty – the foundation on which this wondrous effort is built upon.

Almost 18 months ago we watched on with pride as Michelle Payne took Prince of Penzance, the 100-1 outsider, to Melbourne Cup glory.  The first ever female jockey to do so.   Michelle celebrated the strength of women in a male dominated sport and raised our awareness to the challenges they face.

The bush horseman, now master trainer, Darren Weir celebrated as he would – by putting on a day for his mates back at the Berriwillock pub.  The world came to take our Cup but were denied by these no-nonsense horse folk who just happened to be damn good at what they did.  No wonder the movie is getting made.

But it was what happened immediately after the race that piqued my interest.  The humble trainer, who constantly deflects the attention, was lavish and constant in his praise for his ‘team’.  When the emotion of such a big moment could get to you, Weir’s recognition of the people who prop the iceberg up was motivating.

“Unbelievable for all the people I have on my side.  All my mates who work in the office, all my mates who work in the stable, all my mates who run the Warrnambool stables and to all the magnificent staff I have at home we couldn’t have done it without you guys and you’ll be a part of the party as much as I will be.”  Now who doesn’t want that bloke as their leader?!

In the moments after Winx’s win on Saturday, Chris Waller, Winx’s ever emotional trainer said whilst being interviewed on Channel Seven.  ‘It’s a massive effort.  A team effort.’

Down south at Caulfied only half an hour or so before this, David Hayes, the experienced leader of the Lindsay Park Racing stable (who trains in partnership with his nephew and son) gushed ‘…to win with a young team behind us, it’s great to have it acknowledged.’ And this –  ‘It’s been a great team effort.’  This of course after he had produced his sixth winner of the Blue Diamond, Victoria’s premier 2 year-old race.

Bear in mind that journalists aren’t really angling at finding out about the team through their questioning.  They want to know about the horse, the jockey, the ride, the barrier, the track, the owners, the odds, where to next etc.  More often than not the trainers turn the questioning to recognise the work by their team – the people propping up that iceberg.

So what do we learn about high performing teams from the racing industry?  Here’s four things:

They’re outcome focused – All the work carried out behind the scenes is directed towards a clear outcome – and this isn’t always winning.  As horses go through their preparation there will be a specific target or two at some point in the campaign.  Trainers, jockey’s (track work and riders), stable hands, vets, strappers and data analysts all need to have a clear understanding of the outcome, timeline and the road of progress.

They establish clear roles & responsibilities – Establishing clarity to the role you play is a non-negotiable aspect of being part of a high performing team.  The roles within the equine industry are extremely varied and having clarity of the tasks you are expected to perform, when you’re expected to perform them and the measure of success associated is vital to achieving the desired outcome.

Their people are committed – Flowing on from the above is the essential requirement to be committed.  Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  Sure, the Hugh Bowman’s of this world get to sit atop these incredible animals and receive the praise they duly deserve – when they get past the post first of course.  This does not come without extreme commitment to put the polish on the great work done behind the scenes.  Check out the lengths Brad Rawiller goes to as part of his commitment to the team.  Perhaps not surprising considering he rides many horses for D.K. Weir.

Their leaders are effective – Racing stables are big businesses with extremely varied personalities and demographics to match – from the millionaire owners to the just left school apprentice jockey who will muck the stables for the next few years.  The head trainer is the CEO of this organisation, so having the situational leadership awareness and skills to boot is a must.  Racing is a tough game as evidenced by the number of trainers who in recent times have identified with battling depression.  Effectively managing yourself and others is a critical skill for trainers in driving the performance of their team.

Okay, so not everyone loves the racing game and to be fair it does have its own ongoing challenges.  Whichever side of the fence you sit on however, it is hard to argue against the fact that it is one of the more challenging industries to establish and sustain a high performing team.  As evidenced over the weekend however, we could perhaps all take a leaf out of their book when it comes to this.

What do you think?  Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Damian Hecker

Co-founder at Leaders of Evolution
Keeping an eye on all sports, especially the mighty Hawthorn Football Club, staying fit in the great outdoors and sneaking in some travel wherever possible occupy Damian's time away from designing e-learning curriculum for both Leaders of Evolution and our valued E-learning Hub Partners.
Damian Hecker

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