Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is the Guessing Game Over?

Genitic Chart
Recently, a report  predicting sprinting ability and racing stamina in thoroughbred race horses using genetics was published by Scientists at University College Dublin in Ireland. The work conducted by nine scientists identified a specific “speed gene” set that strongly indicates the best race distance for individual thoroughbreds. To sum up this lengthy report in layman’s terms, thoroughbreds have two copies of the speed gene, one from each parent and these genes are identified with the letters C and T.

There are three possible combinations of the genes. The C:C combo indicates win-early type sprinters who are at their best up to a mile; C:T supports a combination of speed and stamina, indicating the horse will prefer distances between seven and twelve furlongs; and T:T. genes signify marathon runners at their best going ten furlongs and farther.

The cost for the gene typing is reasonable, under $2,000 USD, and thoroughbred owners can send a sample of their horse’s blood to the Irish-based Equinome, a company founded by one of the scientists, Dr. Emmeline Hill and trainer Jim Bolger.

So what does this genetic finding mean for the Thoroughbred breeding industry and handicappers?

Breeders don’t need a genetic test to know which stallions get precocious sprinters or which stallion’s progeny need time to mature. Pedigree, conformation and temperament are strong indicators of how far a horse will run and how quickly they will develop. We already know that if you breed two sprinters that you will get a sprinter, likewise with distance runners.

Breeding sprinters to distance horses might get you a thoroughbred in the middle ground category, but it’s still a guessing game and why most breeders don’t breed extremes. The speed genes don’t indicate the quality or talent of a horse, merely the distance the horse will prefer to run.

Profiling for the speed gene will be most useful for thoroughbreds whose best distances are between seven and ten furlongs and have the genetic marker C:T, but the test doesn’t indicate whether a horse will prefer running ten furlongs or if their best distance is eight and a half or nine furlongs.

Mr. Prospector
The genetic test actually proves the long-held breeding theory that milers make the best sires. In America,  most horses lumped into the miler category win from six to nine furlongs, since that is the distance of the majority of races. These stallions undoubtedly have the C:T gene since their offspring win at various distances, depending on the stamina orientation of their progeny’s distaff side.

Another enduring theory indicates that the dam imparts stamina to her offspring while the sire delivers speed. If the mares have the same CT genes as the stallions, currently, it’s anybody’s guess how far the progeny will want to run. This is where testing for the speed gene can come into play. When two C:T horses are bred there are three possible outcomes, a sprinter (C:C) middle distance (C:T) or route runner (T:T).

The genetic profiling could be invaluable to stud farms from a marketing standpoint, especially for new stallions. If breeders know beforehand the distance capabilities a new sire can pass on to his offspring, they may be more inclined to use that stud if they have a certain type of mare. Genetic testing of a mare can also assist in the breeding plans. This is not to say that pedigree and conformation will no longer be important. On the contrary, genetic typing can only enhance the many tools used in planning a mating.

On the practical front of racing the thoroughbred, knowing beforehand that a horse carries a particular type of speed gene can help eliminate some of the guess work of a training regimen. If a trainer knew that his charge has certain distance concerns, or may be slower to mature despite its breeding, a suitable training and racing schedule can be instituted to help the horse reach its potential on the race track.

This carries over to the handicapping aspect. Of course, since genetic testing is so new, it will be years before it becomes mainstream; but what if, down the road, there was a place in the past performances that indicated which speed genes a horse carried? Some of the guess work would be taken out of those maiden two year old races and even have implications on races like the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. I know plenty of handicappers who would welcome a free piece of the handicapping puzzle.