Genetic Test for Thoroughbred Racehorse ?Speed Gene’ Ready for Commercial Launch in Ireland

by Fran Jurga | 20 January 2010 | The Jurga Report at

“It might be a stretch for him to get that distance.” “There’s distance back in his pedigree, you know…” “Don’t run a square peg in a round hole.” You hear trainers and owners and breeders and pedigree analysts mull over the distance factor in a racehorse’s pedigree all the time.

There’s an ideal distance for a racehorse, and a genetic test may be able to identify just exactly how many furlongs a horse is meant to run.

That’s the message of Equinome. a new Irish biotech company with deep roots in Thoroughbred racing. Next week they will launch a genetic test that they say can identify the optimum racing distance for individual Thoroughbred horses. According to Equinome, the identification of “The Speed Gene” is the first known characterization of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in Thoroughbred horses and has the potential to transform decision-making processes in the global bloodstock industry.

The Thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry sees more than 100,000 foals born each year on stud farms on virtually every continent except Antarctica. Using the Equinome Speed Gene test, racehorse owners and trainers would be able to identify if a horse is ideally suited to racing over short, middle or middle-to-long distances. Of course, this information is the sort that good breeders have always been able to compute in their heads with the knowledge of pedigrees and running forms of breeding stock, but Equinome aims to turn that ancient skill into a science by identifying whether or which speed characteristics of the bloodlines were actually transferred to the working genetic code of the offspring.

The development of the Equinome Speed Gene test is a result of research led by Dr Emmeline Hill, horse genomics researcher at the UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine. This research was the first academic program in the world to apply novel genomics technologies to identify genetic contributions to racing performance in Thoroughbred horses and was funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

Click here to read a background article about how the University of Dublin genomics research was conducted.

Following the success of the research program, Dr Hill and Mr Jim Bolger, the renowned Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, co-founded Equinome in 2009 to commercialize the test.

The scientific data supporting the Equinome Speed Gene test have been peer-reviewed and published today in a scientific paper entitled A sequence polymorphism in MSTN predicts sprinting ability and racing stamina in Thoroughbred horses in the open access on-line Public Library of Science Journal, PLoS ONE.

According to Dr Emmeline Hill, “Breeding techniques for Thoroughbred horses have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Breeders currently rely on combining successful bloodlines together, hoping that the resulting foal will contain that winning combination of genes. Until now, whether those winning genes have or have not been inherited could only be surmised by observing the racing and breeding success of a horse over an extended period of years after its birth.”

She concluded, “Using the Equinome Speed Gene test…it will now be possible to definitively know a horse’s genetic type within weeks of a sample being taken, thus reducing much of the uncertainty that has been typically involved in selection, training and breeding decisions.”

Equinome, which is a University College Dublin spin-out company, will formally launch the test during the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (ITBA) Expo 2010 at Goffs sales center, Kill, County Kildare on January 29-30. Equinome will present a seminar called “Cracking the Code: The Speed Gene Revealed”.

Comment: this genetic test identifies (or, perhaps, verifies) the genetic predictability of a horse to successfully run a given distance vs other distances, but does not account for a horse’s willingness, trainability, soundness, behavior or the condition of the footing or the phase of the moon. I know that Dr Hill’s experience in the racing world means she is aware of these factor. She does not mention surface suitability, since probably, in Ireland at least, so much of racing is on grass. Still, it would be interesting to see what a handicapper would do with this information!

And it also makes one wonder what would become of the offspring that do not successfully inherit the optimum code: would their sale values be reduced? Would their trainers be challenged to make up the difference with an alternative schooling program? Does an unmatching genetic code to that desired mean that a drop in distance is the best program for that horse? I wish I could be at that seminar!

Bio for Dr. Hill (provided by the University of Dublin): Dr Emmeline Hill hails from a Co. Wexford family synonymous with horse racing and breeding in Ireland. Her grandmother was Charmian Hill, the owner of Dawn Run, the only racehorse to have completed the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle (1984) and Gold Cup (1986) double. She joined UCD in 2002 as a post-doctoral researcher. In 2004 she became a UCD Principal Investigator when she was awarded a Science Foundation Ireland President of Ireland Young Researcher Award. Dr Hill maintains strong industry links with horse breeding and training operations in Ireland and internationally and is a member of the International Horse Genome Mapping Group and the International Horse Genome Sequencing Consortium. She graduated in 1995 with a BA (Genetics) from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD in Molecular Genetics in 2000.

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