September 5, 2005

Genetic mapping to give thoroughbreds winning edge

By Paul Hoskins

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Scientists will soon be able to furnish
race horse buyers with a genetic map before they fork out
millions of dollars for a young thoroughbred that may never
race, a panel of eminent researchers said on Monday.

Having established that The Darley Arabian, a colt imported
from Syria 300 years ago, is responsible for 95 percent of the
Y-chromosomes in all male thoroughbreds, scientists believe it
will not be long before they can screen out equine ailments.

"When people are spending millions in a sales ring for a
thoroughbred ... you might want to take a look at its engine as
well," said Dr Emmeline Hill of University College London, who
conducts research in animal genetics. "Genetic profiling will
give you an extra level of information that wasn't there

Technology allowing buyers to exploit performance-enhancing
genetic mutations and avoid inherited diseases that have
curtailed many a horse's career should become a reality within
her lifetime, she added.

Research is made easier by two centuries of record keeping,
the old bones of former champions and a level of inbreeding
that means the world's half-a-million thoroughbreds get almost
all their genes from just 28 horses.

"It is a very narrow population and this is pretty much
unique," said Professor Patrick Cunningham of Trinity College
Dublin, who specializes in breeding programs for horses and
other livestock.

He added that in future conditions such as pulmonary
bleeding under stress could be avoided.

"People will certainly select against that," he told
journalists at the British Association for the Advancement of
Science festival in Dublin. "Quite a number of horses never
make it to the track because they break down in training."

A 200-year-old register identifying the parentage of
purebred horses, known as the Stud Book, provided a useful
launch pad for research that may soon move on to studying the
remains of early champions.

"We now have the tools in terms of genetic markers and
genetic maps," said Professor Matthew Binns of London's Royal
Veterinary College. "Now there are collections of bones of many
of these ancient thoroughbreds that will enable us to get
handles on some of these key animals."

But given that genes are believed to account for just one
third of a horse's performance, science can only achieve so
much according to Cunningham. Producing genetic duplicates of
former winners, for example, would stray beyond horse-racing's
stringent rules and into the realms of science fiction.

"If you cloned Northern Dancer and put him out to race, he
might end up just being an also-ran," Cunningham said of the
Canadian-bred Kentucky Derby winner considered to be one of the
greatest studs of the 20th century.