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It’s (Mostly) in the Genes

As has been widely noted in the horse racing blogosphere (I am so pleased I got to say that), Ray Paulick has a great editorial on the actions that should be taken in light of the plan produced at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. The idea of a durability index for stallions as mentioned in the editorial has been discussed in a number of places, most notably by The Pedigree Guru. He notes how the current ranking system that relies on total monies earned by offspring is skewed by a few individual ‘big’ horses and I fully agree.

I would also suggest that the data is out there to at least make a start on a soundness index; an initial measure could be the percentage of a particular stallion’s offspring who are deemed too unsound to even consider putting them in training. I don’t know what sort of real numbers that might involve, but based on discussions I’ve had with people at some of the major breeding farms, it is a reasonably significant one. Granted, in many cases genetic faults may also lie with the mares involved, but until someone begins to compile and package the statistics, it’s all guesswork.

What is not guesswork is the interesting research that has been done on the equine genome:

Related work on sequencing the horse genome is also uncovering genes in thoroughbreds linked to speed and stamina. Screening for these traits could one day guide owners’ and breeders’ decisions when buying horses, which may sell for many millions of dollars.

“We hope to produce sounder, faster and better-performing horses,” says Cunningham. He and colleague Emmeline Hill at University College Dublin [Ed: Another article well worth checking out is also by Dr. Emmeline Hill — ‘Genomics of performance in the equine athlete.’] is also using the horse genome to uncover genes that explain why one animal runs faster than another.

However, the analysis of thoroughbred genetics is also revealing the other side of the coin, notes Matthew Binns of the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK. Many negative traits are associated with inbreeding in the diminutive gene pool, he says. “The selections we’ve made for fantastic beasts have had some detrimental consequences.”

One tenth of thoroughbreds suffer orthopaedic problems and fractures, 10% have low fertility, 5% have abnormally small hearts and the majority suffer bleeding in the lungs, says Binns. But as well as allowing breeders to select for performance-related genes, elucidating the horse genome may allow researchers to breed out negative traits, he says. “Now we have a good amount of the horse genome, there are interesting times ahead,” says Binns. “Over the next 10 years there will be some changes in this very traditional industry.”

Naturally, as this data could potentially make someone a bit of cash, there’s a company called Thoroughbred Genetics that offers genetic analysis for the racing industry. I see this as no bad thing — it’s very interesting work and clearly someone should be doing it; if the free market helped to breed an unsound horse, it can also help breed a sound one.

Beyond genetics, here is a lot of very interesting research out there (The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation is a great resource for finding peer-reviewed studies if you don’t already have access to an academic library) regarding training, track surfaces and medications to name just a few areas of interest; with the wealth of studies available, it’s about time the industry takes the recommendations of the Welfare and Safety Summit on board.

Finally, speaking of horse genetics, that’s my excuse for the picture of the NZ-born pure-white filly by Zabeel. I’ll let you coat color genetics folks go to town on this one!

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1 comment to It’s (Mostly) in the Genes

  • John (AKA Not Too Swift)

    Nice post, I wonder why Mr Anonymous doesn’t leave cynical remarks on your blog, could it be he might actually learn something?

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