enhancing the need for speed

New gene test set to revolutionise the global breeding sector

Caitriona Murphy

Irish scientists have developed a ground-breaking new test that will allow thoroughbred breeders to predict what distance their horses will best race at.

The test, known as the Equinome speed gene test, is based on the gene that influences muscle mass development in the horse and was developed by Dr Emmeline Hill, a leading horse genomics researcher at the UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine.

No stranger to the racing industry, Dr Hill hails from a family that has been breeding and racing thoroughbreds for generations.

Her grandmother, Charmian Hill, was the owner of Dawn Run, the only horse to win the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle (1984) and Cheltenham Gold Cup (1986).

Equinome is a UCD spin-out company, headquartered at NovaUCD, which was co-founded last year by Dr Hill and racehorse trainer Jim Bolger to commercialise the test.

Dr Hill has been researching the horse genome since 2004, using funding from Science Foundation Ireland. The identification of the speed gene is the first known characterisation of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in thoroughbred horses.

The development of the test has the potential to transform decision-making processes in the global bloodstock industry.

Dr Hill says the speed gene test will make it possible to definitively know a horse's genetic type within weeks of a sample being taken -- reducing much of the uncertainty that has typically been involved in selection, training and breeding decisions.

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The success of a racehorse depends on a combination of inherited characteristics (genes) and environmental influences including management and training.

Pedigree studies have demonstrated that more than 35pc of the variation in racecourse performance is down to inherited characteristics.

In a situation where individuals are cared for and trained in the same way, the genetic contribution to racing performance will be considerably more important. In other words, all other things being equal, the main differences between two individuals in a yard will be in the genes.

Using the Equinome speed gene test, trainers and owners can decide on the management of individual horses, while breeders can match mares to suitable stallions and stallion owners can improve a stallion's reputation for producing winners.

Blood samples were taken from 1,500 horses during the course of Dr Hill's work, of which 179 were winners of group and listed races.

The gene test allows horses to be identified as one of three types: C:C, C:T or T:T.

The typical C:C horse is described as a fast, speedy, sprint-type animal.

A C:C horse is likely to be a fast, early maturing horse that performs well as a two-year-old. As a two-year-old, a C:C horse has 6.7pc greater muscle mass than a T:T horse and earns, on average, four times more prize money.

A C:C horse excels in sprints and is best suited to races up to, and including, one mile.

According to the research, the average best distance for a C:C horse is 6.5 furlongs.

Some 75pc of winners over five furlongs were C:C types, while 65pc of winners over six furlongs were C:C types.

Some 98pc of C:C types win at distances between five furlongs and one mile.

Stallions that are C:C have the greatest share of two-year-old winners, and have a stamina index of six to eight furlongs. Mares that are C:C can only produce C:C and C:T foals

A C:T horse is described as a fast, middle-distance type, with an average best distance of 9.1 furlongs. It has a mixture of speed and stamina and is the most versatile in terms of distance. A C:T horse can perform well as a two-year-old, but is best suited to races between seven and 12 furlongs.

Only C:T horses are likely to win both one mile and one mile and a half Group races.

Almost 70pc of C:Ts win between eight and 12 furlongs, while half of C:Ts win at between five furlongs and one mile. Some 55pc of winners over 12 furlongs are C:T types.

A C:T stallion is more likely to produce winning two-year-olds if compatible mares are used.

The progeny of a C:T mare over her life's span will be C:C (25pc), C:T (50pc) or T:T (25pc), and these proportions can shift towards more speed (C:C and C:T) if a C:C stallion is used or towards more stamina (C:T and T:T) if a T:T stallion is used.

T:T horses are later maturing and are best suited to races at distances greater than one mile. Known for their stamina, T:T horses do not perform optimally as two-year-olds. However, as a two-year-old, a T:T horse may race over one mile at the end of the season in testing ground conditions.

On average, T:T horses earn up to 20 times less as two- year-olds than C:T horses of similar pedigree, and are less likely to return the training fees in their earnings.

However, as three-year-olds and older, T:T horses may win the Classic races -- winners of the Oaks, Derby, St Leger and Melbourne Cup have been identified as T:T.

The average best distance for T:T horses is 11.1 furlongs and more than 90pc of T:T horses win over distances greater than a mile. More than 80pc of T:T horses win over distances greater than 10 furlongs.

According to the research, less than 5pc of two-year-old Group winners are T:T types and no winners over five or six furlongs are T:T types.

Trainer Jim Bolger admits he did not realise the potential of the test until recently.

"Emmeline started taking samples here six years ago and it didn't mean anything at the start," he recalls. "But last year, the potential began to crystallise for me.


"Basically, it means that, as a trainer, I can concentrate on the earlier types at this time of year and work more on the staying types later in the year.

"It's also really helpful for breeders because, unless you want to breed an out-and-out stayer, there is no point in putting your T:T mare in foal to a T:T stallion; you can decide to inject a bit of speed with a sprinter-type stallion instead," Mr Bolger says.

Ballylinch Stud's John O'Connor is one of the first stallion managers to advertise his sire's genetic type. Intense Focus has been identified as a C:C sprinter-type stallion and he says the introduction of genetic know-how will dramatically change the bloodstock industry.

"We have begun, and intend to continue, to use this highly valuable tool to fine-tune decision making in our operation," Mr O'Connor says. "This will fundamentally change the way we will have to think about breeding in the future."

Costing €1,000 each, the speed gene test was formally launched at the ITBA Expo on Friday and more information is available on the website, www.equinome.ie.

Irish Independent

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