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The Observer Tech Monthly                                                                 June 22, 2014

Link to full Observer Tech Monthly article

 

Excerpt from 'How genetics can create the next superstar racehorse'. 

By David Derbyshire, Observer Tech Monthly.  

 

In the glorious sunshine of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stud farm Watership Down, overlooked by rolling pastures, retired millionaire Dr Philip Brown is inspecting his investment.

Her name is Darysina and even to an uneducated eye she is something special. Standing quietly next to a paddock gate she is sleek, muscular and even tempered. She oozes quality.

But what has Brown so excited isn't simply the four-year-old mare's classy pedigree, her record on the field or her cost 800,000 (640,000) at auction in December. No. What makes Darysina so precious is the foal she is carrying. In March, after her DNA was comprehensively analysed, she was introduced to the charms of Frankel the greatest and most successful thoroughbred in modern racing history. Frankel is the superstar of horses. He was unbeaten in his 14-race career, is worth more than 100m and his genes are so valuable that his owners charge 125,000 for a quick roll in the hay.

Last week, his first foal to be sold at public auction was snapped up for 1.15m. Any wealthy owner aiming to produce a quality thoroughbred would consider Frankel as a suitor, but Brown didn't want to leave anything to chance. His decision to use him only came after he had consulted a British company that screens equine genes to find the best possible match.

Looking at the DNA of horses to find good breeding stock may seem obvious, but it goes against centuries of tradition in this most conservative of sports where suspicion of applied molecular genetics is rife. The Jockey Club insists on gene tests to confirm parentage, but bans the use of cloned horses even though in 2012 the International Federation for Equestrian Sports announced that clones would be allowed to compete in future Olympic Games. Indeed, breeding decisions are made almost entirely by studying pedigree the records of bloodlines and race results that go back generations.

But Philip Brown isn't a typical owner. A former science correspondent of the Daily Express in the 1960s, he made his fortune in science publishing. He is sometimes called the wealthiest ex-journalist in Britain and is fascinated, and knowledgeable, about molecular genetics. He was aware that pedigree can be a poor guide to quality: an ancestor five generations back contributes 3% of an animal's DNA.

The Green Monkey is a classic example of the dangers of relying on bloodlines. In 2006 the bay two-year-old colt with an impeccable pedigree sold at auction for $16m the highest price of a publicly auctioned thoroughbred. It ran just four times and failed to win once. "I'm a scientist and I have a belief in science," says Brown. "So if you say there's a genetic reality to all this, you ought to apply the rules of genetics. It makes sense."

Over the last three years, Brown has worked closely with Dr Stephen Harrison, a geneticist whose Canterbury-based company, Thoroughbred Genetics Limited, creates genetic profiles of horses. The company, founded in 2000, was the first in the world to offer DNA screening for racehorse performance. Over the last decade, Harrison and colleagues have used whole genome analysis from thousands of animals to identify markers linked to equine stamina, strength, respiratory system and energy use. He claims Thoroughbred Genetics' techniques are 75% better than conventional non-genetic methods of choosing winners from a group of horses. Its methods give animals a performance profile based on an analysis of 750 genetic markers. The tests generate cluster graphs that indicate whether or not a horse is best suited to be a sprinter, a long-distance athlete or something in between. By comparing the analyses of mares and stallions, it is possible to get a clue where any progeny will fall in the chart.

The tests also show the level of inbreeding in a horse. We're used to thinking of inbreeding as a problem. After all, it led to blood disorders in the royal families of Europe in the early 20th century and hip problems in German shepherd dogs. But sometimes a degree of inbreeding can be beneficial. One of the most striking examples of this is the 90 Chillingham cattle of Northumbria, thought to be descendants of medieval cattle. They are so inbred that calves are almost genetically identical to their parents. Yet despite the narrow gene pool, the Chillingham cattle are thriving. In 2001 a study in Nature showed that no other cattle had joined the herd for more than 300 years yet the creatures are fit and healthy. All harmful recessive genes have been purged from the group through a combination of inbreeding and selection.

The Chillingham cattle are an extreme example, but racehorses, too, are bred from a relatively narrow genetic pool. Almost all of the world's half a million thoroughbreds are descendants from just 28 healthy, fit and fast ancestors born in the 18th and 19th centuries. And up to 95% can be traced to just one stallion the Darley Arabian, born in 1700. Centuries of selection for good hearts, healthy respiratory systems and muscle strength has created a genetic pool that is shallow, but not unhealthily so. Harrison's studies have shown that more inbred horses tend to have the speed and strength that makes them good sprinters. However, high levels of inbreeding in thoroughbreds doesn't suit all race types. Outbred "mongrels" tend to be more robust and better at withstanding the tough training regimes needed for longer courses.

It was partly on the advice of Harrison that Brown bought Darysina and mated her with Frankel.

"From within a roughly appropriate economic group, we gave Philip a list of stallions that we thought would suit Darysina," says Harrison. "Frankel actually came out top because he most suited the profile required for the inbreeding level of Darysina and which might most likely enhance 'genetic fixation' within the correct stamina zone and reduce mongrelism."

Decisions about breeding matter because racing is big business. It's the second most popular spectator sport with more than six million racegoers each year. According to the British Horse Industry Confederation, it employs about 90,000 people directly and indirectly and generates 3.7bn a year for the economy. Perhaps surprisingly, some horses that never win a race can produce exceptional offspring if they are bred with the right stock.

One of Harrison's greatest successes is Sacred Choice, bred by Ken Williams's Tarcoola Stud in Victoria, Australia, which had nine wins from 37 starts including the Group One Doncaster Handicap at Randwick in Sydney and the Group One Myer Classic at Flemington in Melbourne two of Australia's big one-mile races. Yet on paper its mother, Sacred Habit, wasn't up to much. "Sacred Habit was sold because it was a rusty animal," says Harrison. "And yet it bred this multiple group-one winner."

The genetic profile suggested that the mother had potential but was too inbred. On Harrison's advice, she was bred with a stallion called Choisir to produce an offspring with the right balance of strength and stamina and increased mongrelism. The outbreeding did the trick and Sacred Choice became one of the great Australian milers of recent times.

When talking to enthusiastic equine geneticists such a Harrison, it's easy to forget that theirs is a brand new branch of the horseracing industry. The horse genome's 32 pairs of chromosomes, written in 2.7 billion base pairs of DNA, were sequenced and published only in 2009 and discoveries are being made all the time about genetic links to performance.

 

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