The Guardian March 21, 2006
Scientist finds the speed genes
A British scientist yesterday claimed to have made a "historic
breakthrough" in the study of thoroughbred genetics, after a six-year
research project produced the first proof of a relationship between specific
genes and the individual performances of racehorses.
The results of the study by Dr Stephen Harrison, whose company
Thoroughbred Genetics is based in Kent, will be published next month in the
peer- reviewed journal Mitochondrian
It could have considerable implications for international bloodstock
business, in which a Derby winner such as Motivator can command a stud fee of
many thousands of pounds per cover, but in which young, untried horses are
often bought for millions of dollars on little more than a hunch and a prayer.
Working with Juan Luiz Turrion-Gomez, Dr Harrison studied eight
"athletically-important" genes in samples of mitochondrial DNA (mDNA)
taken from 1,000 racehorses, including Classic winners. mDNA is significant
because it is inherited solely from the dam side of a horse's pedigree, while
the mitochondria in which it is located are important cellular structures
linked to energy release and respiration in muscles, and thus, according to Dr
Harrison, "have a direct impact on the optimum performance of a
racehorse". Dr Harrison has discovered that different combinations of the
performance-related genes will give horses different racing aptitudes,
particularly with regard to optimum race distance, and the age at which they
are likely to perform best.
His findings could also provide valuable information to trainers,
who often adopt a "try-it-and-see" approach to finding a horse's
best trip. Genetic analysis may also help to identify horses that will not
stay a certain distance, such as a mile or 12 furlongs, when traditional
analysis of their pedigrees suggests that they should.
Thoroughbred Genetics now hopes to exploit its findings by offering
a genetic testing service to breeders and owners who want to reduce as much of
the risk as possible from the bloodstock business.
"Breeding racehorses is a high-risk, multimillion-dollar
industry," Dr Harrison said yesterday. "A high percentage of
racehorse breeders fail to recoup their investments. Many foals produced are
bred inappropriately and fetch poor prices at sales, a large proportion fail
to reach the racecourse, and the vast majority never win a race. It is
estimated that global expenditure on stud fees is $3bn (£2bn) annually, while
stallion fees can run as high as $600,000. The odds have for too long been
stacked against the breeder, and the use of advanced genetic techniques to
modernise traditionally-based breeding programmes can narrow down the quest to
produce a truly brilliant horse. Racehorse breeding has effectively been
fast-forwarded 200 years."
Dr Harrison's work has also highlighted dozens of palpable errors in
the General Stud Book, some dating to as recently as the 1970s. He hopes that
the research will also lay to rest such beliefs as the idea that a stayer bred
to a sprinter will produce a miler, which still have their supporters in some
parts of the breeding industry.
"That's really like saying that if you take parts from a
Formula One car and mix them with bits from a tractor, you'll get a touring
car in between," Harrison says.
"You are much better off coordinating all your efforts to try
to make sure that you have the best genetic chance to start with, and what we
want to do now is to develop and provide confirmatory tests that will allow
that to happen."
Breeding thoroughbreds has often been seen as being as much of an
art as a science, while the great Italian breeder Federico Tesio famously
commented almost half a century ago that "the thoroughbred racehorse
exists because its selection has depended not on experts, technicians or
zoologists, but one piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby."
Genetic science, it seems, may be about to prove otherwise.
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