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Speed, Stamina, and Genomic Research

The following was written and sent to us by Joseph Appelbaum, a successful NY-based pinhooker and bloodstock consultant.

It seems clear that the next frontier in thoroughbred breeding will be based on genomic research. However, I don¹t think this advance will be of great significance. Why not? The crux of the discovery is the ability to anticipate at what distance a horse will perform optimally. While this ability is important, the advances suggested by the scientists are likely only a small improvement over the judgments made by breeders.

Modern breeders already have a good understanding of the likely distance traits of their planned matings. Both stallions and mares (as well as their parents and progeny) have established race records. We know that breeding Dynaformer to a mare that won a race over a mile, will likely result in a foal that will excel in distance races. Similarly, breeding Orientate (winner of the Breeders Cup Sprint) to a mare that won exclusively at 6 furlongs will likely result in a sprinter.

Furthermore, the distinctions in distance are becoming less and less relevant. With the trend away from distance racing, most races are contested between 6 and 9 furlongs. Three eighths of a mile just isn¹t that large of a difference when thinking about genetic permutations. While there will certainly be anomalies in this process, the likely improvement of the genetic testing over breeding sense is likely to be small. For those looking for a more evidentiary approach to breeding, this discovery is a positive step.

The legend of thoroughbred breeding began with 3 stallions and 40 foundation mares. Genetic testing has uncovered this story to be a fable. With modern DNA testing of foals and extensive data now available in easily sorted formats, it seems only a matter of time till thoroughbred matings will be planned with genetic assistance. This is likely to come in one of two forms.

Modern Nicking
Although this form of mating planning has been widely disparaged, with the right genetic tools, many will try to mimic this approach, hopefully incorporating the female family into the analysis.

Modeling
An effort will be made to model the genetic codes of champions and matings will be designed to mimic those codes. We have not reached this crossroad yet, but this announcement is certainly a stop on way. We shall see where it lands us.

Speed Gene Makes Picking Racehorses a Safer Bet
By Jason Gale

A speed gene in horses is enabling thoroughbred owners to sort would-be sprinters from plodders from just a teaspoonful of the galloper¹s blood. Scientists at University College Dublin matched the genetic code of 179 race winners with performance on the track to identify variants of the muscle mass-regulating myostatin gene that predict a horse¹s optimum racing distance.

The research is the first known characterization of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in thoroughbreds, the authors said in the study, published Jan. 20 in the Public Library of Science Journal. Commercialization of the test may alter the course of a multibillion-dollar industry whose breeding practices have remained little changed for centuries, the researchers said.

“Breeders currently rely on combining successful bloodlines together, hoping that the resulting foal will contain that winning combination of genes”, said Emmeline Hill, 36, a geneticist at the university and the study¹s lead author. Whether those winning genes have or have not been inherited could only be surmised by observing the racing and breeding success of a horse over an extended period of years. The research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland, according to the study.

“For 1,000 euros ($1,400), owners may submit a 5-milliliter sample of their horse¹s blood to Hill’s Equinome lab to test whether the animal has inherited a specific myostatin mutation conferring speed for short-distance races, staying power for middle distances or stamina for longer events over 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles)”, she said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Equinome was co-founded in 2009 by Hill and Jim Bolger, an Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, to commercialize the gene test and pursue research on horse performance genetics. The company plans to begin offering the test at the end of January, according to a university statement. The test results, returned in about three weeks, also will help breeders make better-informed decisions on which mares to mate with which stallions, and tell whether a foal has a genetic predilection for early maturity, advantageous for racing as a 2- year-old, she said.

“It takes out a lot of the guesswork and minimizes the risk of any future investment you may have for that horse”, Hill said, adding that training and racing strategies also influence success on the track. “This is a test for what your horse will be good at, not how good he will be.”

Hill’s research follows the completion three years ago of the Horse Genome Project in which more than 100 scientists in 20 countries collaborated to define the DNA sequence of the domestic horse. The knowledge is enabling scientists to better understand the genetic aspects of equine physiology and disease.

“In humans, more than 200 genes have been associated with athletic performance traits”, Hill said. “Scientists expected many genes would contribute to overall performance in horses, so it was unusual that a single gene, myostatin, was so influential”, she said.

“Myostatin mutants are associated with so-called double muscling in cattle, mice and humans”, said David Adelson, chair of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Genetics at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, who helped map the equine and bovine genomes. He wasn¹t involved in Hill’s study.

“The variant they have identified could have an influence on racing performance, especially with respect to performance in sprints”, Adelson said in an e-mail today. “Efforts to identify genes linked to speed across the horse genome haven¹t been successful so far, and gene-association studies in other species haven¹t been able to narrow down to a handful the number of genes connected with certain quantitative traits such as height and weight”, he said.

“Undoubtedly someone will try to cash in on this result with a genetic test, but ultimately the proof will come from repeated tests of association in other horse populations”, Adelson said.

“Racehorse breeders will probably want to see more evidence of the advantages before embracing the approach”, said billionaire Australian retailer Gerry Harvey, who runs more than 300 Thoroughbred brood mares at Baramul stud at Widden Valley, about 300 kilometers northwest of Sydney.

“I would be interested, but skeptical because of all the different theories that have come up over the years”, Harvey, chairman of Harvey Norman Holdings Ltd., said in a telephone interview today. “They have got to do the practical side, and it will be many years before they have an answer.”

Hill and colleagues found that horses with the myostatin gene combination designated as C/C are better suited to fast, short races; those with the C/T variation tend to compete better over middle distances; and T/T animals have more stamina. C/C and C/T were more successful as racehorses at 2 years old, earning an average of 5.5 times more prize money than T/T horses at that age, the authors said.

For bettors, the genetic information isn¹t likely to yield any advantage anytime soon.

“This information is for owners only”, Hill said. “If anyone wants to reveal the genetic type of their horse, then that’s at their discretion.”

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  • About Jason Hall

    A lifelong student of bloodstock topics as well as being an active owner and breeder, Mr. Hall advocates the importance of empirical research to identify truth in breeding practices. His articles have appeared in such magazines as The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, The Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, The Texas Thoroughbred, The Homestretch, Illinois Racing News, Hoofbeats, The Louisiana Thoroughbred and El Caballista. Mr. Hall holds a degree in journalism from Boise State University.

  • Mariana Lopez

    An enthusiastic and dependable member of our team, Mariana specializes in data collection and interpretation for our statistical research projects.

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