Horses lacking 'motivator gene' more likely to be also-rans as others race ahead, study finds
Researchers have identified a genetic link between what makes some thoroughbred horses race ahead and others couch potatoes.
Breeding champion race horses used to be all down to good bloodstock. According to new scientific research, however, a 'can-do' attitude may be just as important in deciding whether a thoroughbred races or not.
Studies conducted by scientists at University College Dublin and equine science company Plusvital, have indicated that racehorses in possession of the PRCP gene, also known as the 'motivator gene', are self starters, and more likely to race.
Horses lacking PRCP are more likely to remain couch potatoes, no matter how encouraging their trainer is. The new peer-reviewed research, which is published this week in the scientific journal 'Animal Genetics', says genes associated with behaviour may be as integral to a thoroughbred's success as physical ability.
The PRCP gene has previously been associated with mice who voluntarily run in wheels. The research study of 4,500 horses, showed that animals with this gene are motivated to exercise.
As a result, they are more inclined to stick to a training regime and tend to be physically fitter.
"Some horses are just naturally keener for their job than others," UCD Professor of Equine Science, Emmeline Hill said.
"Our findings support the theory that, just as with humans, motivation to exercise may be a critical factor in maintaining a training regime and achieving a high level of fitness."
The study has established a measurable genetic link to future racing potential, Ms Hill said.
"The most important genes appear to be involved in neurological or behavioural traits," she said.
"This is fascinating in the context of trainers' assessments that a horse's 'attitude' to their exercise regime is among the most important aspects to a positive outcome on the racetrack."
Previous studies have shown that fewer than half of thoroughbred foals born actually race.
The new study states that foals and yearlings who possess the 'motivator gene' are more likely to build up strength and stamina through play than foals without the PRCP gene, and this will have a knock on effect on their racing ability.
As part of their study, researchers have developed a predictive test to determine the chances of a thoroughbred making a racecourse start in their two and three year old racing seasons.
The prediction model analyses the DNA of a horse and then categorises them as having a 'high', 'medium' or 'low' chance of making a racecourse start.
"Horses categorised as 'high' are more likely to have a racecourse start, more likely to run in more races, more likely to have higher earnings but curiously do not have a significantly different sales price," Ms Hill explained.
Ms Hill acknowledged that analysing genetics is not the only way to assess a thoroughbred, and that genes won't always predict a winner.
"Of course, genetics cannot on its own replace the current tools," she said.
"There are many other reasons a horse may not progress to race, through injury or the presence of performance-limiting disorders."
However, she believes the findings could be of economic benefit to the horse racing industry. The Irish racing industry generates €1.84bn expenditure a year and supports 28,900 jobs.
There are over 6,500 horse breeders in Ireland.