Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Large Hearts on the Triple Crown Trail

XfactorDoes the large heart factor play a role in the Kentucky Derby? Is it another useful tool for handicappers or just an interesting notion that, while entertaining, is a theory better suited to the breeding shed? What do horsemen mean when they say, “that horse has a lot of heart?”

Let's delve into the components behind these questions.

Unlike humans, a large heart in a Thoroughbred is a good thing. It gives the horse greater stamina and strength. This particularity is passed amongst Thoroughbred families. The large heart gene is also known as the X-Factor, because the gene is located on the x-chromosome. Therefore, a colt can only inherit an oversized heart through his dam, and a stallion can only pass on the gene to his daughters.

The only reliable measurement to determine if a horse has a large heart is to do an ECG of the dam/foal to see if they carry this mutation. The large heart has a 50/50 chance to be passed along to each foal. Therefore, one could have it, while the rest don't. It's a roll of the genetic dice. Other ways to determine (not as reliable) are to examine the pedigree for large-heart ancestors, winning traits of the family and some physical aspects.

Pedigree: X-Factor stallions pass the gene to their daughters, thus becoming good broodmare sires. Secretariat, perhaps one of the most famous stallions noted for his large heart, was noted as one of the greatest broodmare sires in modern history. Some mares are "Double copy" mares, receiving the gene through their sires and dams. For instance, Secretariat's daughter Weekend Surprise was a double copy mare, as she received the gene through her sire and damsire, Buckpasser.Weekend Surprise's dam Lassie Dear and her second dam Gay Missle (by Sir Gaylord) were also carriers. The large heart gene expressed itself in Weekend Surprise's sons A.P. Indy and Summer Squall. Additionally, Lassie Dear's daughter Charming Lassie (by Seattle Slew) passed along the x-factor gene to her son Lemon Drop Kid.
Weekend Surprise Pedigree Chart
A family's racing ability can also be a clue to whether a horse may have the X-Factor. For instance, if a mare who carries a copy (or double copy gene) has ten foals and all of them are winners, she is likely passing along a large heart gene. If only three or four of her ten foals win, she probably isn't passing the gene along.
Also, the X-factor gene can be recessive in a mare. Therefore, she may pass the gene to her babies, but it won't be expressed until her offspring have progeny of their own. That's one of the reasons we see talent skip a generation or two. This is how that comes about. A mare with few winners in her first two generations carrying a recessive heart gene is mated to a stallion with the large heart gene. Surprise - here's a stakes winner. It isn't always that simple, but it does explain why one runner out of ten bred from a mare will be a superstar while the rest languish in claiming races.
Physical Aspects: There is one unique physical characteristic found among horses with large hearts. That is small, curly ears.Secretariat and Zenyatta are noted for their curly ears. Not only is Zenyatta a super-mare, but she's also a double copy mare, receiving the gene from her sire Street Cry (whose entire distaff line is X-factor) and Vertigineux, who receives it from both her sire Kris S. and dam For the Flag.

Zenyattas son
Zenyatta's son
If Zenyatta passes along the X-Factor gene to her sons, they should become excellent runners and sires. Zenyatta's yearling colt resembles his dam and also has her curly ears. Unless Zenyatta's daughters receive the gene from their sire, it is likely that they won't emulate their dam on the racetrack, but they will pass the X-Factor along to their sons.

X-Factor & Handicapping: So how does the X-Factor work to the handicapper's advantage? Nothing is ever mentioned regarding large-hearts and handicapping because it would be impossible to include the info in the past performances. Not every good racehorse carries a large heart. Certain Thoroughbred families carry the large heart gene. Review the pedigrees and racing backgrounds of the contender's families. Also, look for a leaf-like “curly” appearance to the ears. A horse doesn't need to be a statuesque 17 hands high to carry the large heart. Physical size doesn't matter. War Admiral was a small horse, but he carried the double X factor from his sire and dam.
Kentucky Derby Contenders: That brings us to the Kentucky Derby. How many winners have carried the large heart? Reviewing the pedigree charts back to 1970, it seems that the the trend comes and goes. Following are the years that, according to their pedigree charts, horses with the X-Factor won the Kentucky Derby. Note that there is no more than three years between winners who may carry the X-Factor gene.

1973 – 1975 – yes          1992 - no
1976 – no                        1993 – 2000 - yes
1977 – 1981 – yes          2003 – no                
1982 – 1983 – no            2004 - yes
1984 – yes                      2005 – 2007 - no
1985 – 1986 – no            2008 – yes
1987 – yes                     
2009 - no
1988 – 1989 – no            2010 - yes
1990 – 1991 – yes
          2011 – 2012 – no
Keep in mind that heart size alone doesn't guarantee a stakes winner. A horses biomechanics - gait, stride length, conformation, power, health and training all play a part in their ability. However, if the large-hearted horse has these other factors in their favor, there's a strong chance that they'll be a tough customer in their races.


Paul P Chow said...

Dear Ms Ross,
I read your post on the x-factor with interest. It is simple and informative, and one of the best articles I've read on the subject. If I may just ask you one question: How can one be sure that a horse has a large heart without an autopsy? You mentioned the use of an ECG test. Can you shed more light on this procedure? From what I've read, this test could only be conducted when the horse is exercised. If this is the case, then it would not be an option, say, when the horse is still a foal, or for horses at a yearling sale?

Thank you.

Paul P Chow
Tartan Meadow Bloodstock
Hong Kong

Jared Gollnitz said...

Mr. Chow,

Yearlings have recently started having their heart size measured with ultra-sound technology, much like what is used for pregnancy evaluations so that the measurements can be made. As far as I know, the weight of the heart cannot be measured until autopsy, but dimensions and volume can be calculated. A horse's blood throughput can also be measured via ECG by putting a horse on a treadmill.

Anonymous said...

I have developed a new technique to accurately tell the heart size of a horses heart with
out hooking the horse up to a electronic device and it can be done from a distance so you do not have to get a owners permission to do it Knowing the heart sizes of horses in a race gives a trainer an advantage in planning a race being able to determine the heart size on the spot any where in a couple of seconds is a big advantage in buying horses or at the race track

I have developed an advanced technique where I can tell the size of a horses heart with out hooking the horse up to a electronic device. Which can be done from a distance, on the spot
and you don't have to get the owners permission and they never know you have done it. it only takes a couple of seconds which is a big plus at the track or a big sale