Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Don't panic

As expected, Emmeline Hill, PhD.,, published her study on the relationship of specific gene alleles to maximum win distance today at the PLos1 online journal. If you prefer not to slog your way through all the scientific jargon of academe, you can read the commercial version of the results at Equinome, the website of the company founded by Hill and trainer Jim Bolger to market the test based on Hill's research. The core findings are embodied in this page from the website.

Briefly, the research shows that there are two alleles, "C" and "T", at a particular position on a gene that governs muscle mass in Thoroughbreds. This means the horse's genetic code at that particular spot must read either "CC", "CT" or "TT". The important finding from the research on populations of both elite and non-elite Thoroughbreds is that CC horses strongly prefer sprint distances and are more precocious, CTs are mostly milers and 10-furlong horses who may or may not be precocious, and TTs are mostly 10-furlong and up horses.

The distributions of the genes are about the same in the elite and non-elite groups, so Equinome does not claim to test for the class of the animal, just the distance capacity.

What does this mean for those of us who make our livings looking at horses and/or analyzing pedigrees? Not as much as you might first least not if the market responds rationally (perhaps too much to hope for in an irrational business). The important point is that the test has nothing to do with class, only probable distance capacity. I don't know about you, but I think I generally have a pretty good idea of the probable distance capacity of a prospective foal from a mating I recommend. The test would give breeders more information on the prospective sire and dam and the statistical probabilities of the outcome. It is obvious from the data, that in the contemporary, commercial Thoroughbred world, the most desirable combination is CT. And if you mate two CCs or two TTs, you're not going to get any CTs.

It is also obvious, however, that the only way to guarantee you get all CTs is to breed a CC to a TT. In racing mythology, this is what is familiarly known as a "fish and fowl mating", and it is just about as far out of favor as it could get, and for good reason. For instance, if one bred a 2 1/2 mile Ascot Gold Cup winning sire (Yeats, for example) to a filly winner of the 6-furlong Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (Informed Decision, for example), what would you expect to get? The perfect 10-furlong horse? Well, no. History and practice have shown far too often that this simply does not work well, and it is very rarely attempted these days, even taking into account the fact that Gold Cup winners get virtually no chance at stud nowadays.

If you breed CTs to CTs (the most obvious and common tactic), you're going to get 25% CCs, 50% CTs and 25% TTs. That matches up extraordinarily well with what happens in the real world when you breed an 8-10 furlong sire to an 8-10 furlong mare. You'll get a few fast horses that can't stay, a good number of middle-distance types, and a few slow ones that can gallop forever.

The market response to this test is going to be very interesting indeed. The test is a bit pricey at 1,000 euros (about $1,400 currently) per sample (according to the terms of service on the website), but then if you're pondering spending $1-million on a yearling or even $100,000 on a stud fee, what's $1400? The more interesting question for the prospective racehorse market is....exactly who is going to buy the test?

The problem for yearling or juvenile buyers is that, according to the website, the test takes three weeks, so you can't look at a horse at the yearling sale, obtain a blood sample (and of course obtaining the seller's permission to do so), get it tested, and buy the horse the next day. That means that the real market may actually be the sellers of yearlings and two-year-olds, not the buyers. And if you were selling ten yearlings, would you really want to tell buyers that five of them are CTs, three CCs, and two TTs? I doubt many will, though I can envision an environment where all essentially are forced to do so should a prestigious breeder begin the practice, just as they are now forced to put damning radiographs in repositories. On the American market at least, those two TTs would be just about guaranteed to be no bids, no matter how handsome they might be. Once the horse is bought, of course, then the buyer has plenty of time to find out just what type of horse he has acquired. It seems to me the likelihood of both buyers and sellers utilizing the test is higher in the juvenile market, where horses are breezing well ahead of the sale and both sides have more time to consider their options.

I plan on interviewing Emmeline Hill on behalf of Thoroughbred Times on Thursday, so check into Thoroughbred Times Today and the Thoroughbred Times website for excerpts and into the weekly print issue for the full interview.


  1. With a 1k euro tag (for US residents, anyway), this isn't going to get a lot of traction, I'd say.

    Looking forward to your interview and fuller statements from Hill.

    Cheers, Frank.

  2. Massively large effect size for just 2 Base Pairs though.

    Does anyone know if the Base Pairs are right next to each other or not?

    Also interesting these are alleles of the exact same gene that, when mutated, produces a freakishly over-muscled Greyhound.

    I'll read the PLOS Article.

    Also I want to note that this would mostly be useful to Horse Owners to use on Yearlings and whatnot, so they could better pick spots for their horses early in their careers.

    For example, considered that C/Cs are supposedly 10 times better as 2YOs than the average horse, if I had a C/C horse I'd be sure to run him as a 2YO and possibly go out of my way to send him to a trainer who has a good record of handling top 2YOs.

  3. I wouldn't be to worried by this - when i studied genetics at Uni about 6 years ago they told us you have two basic DNA "structures" Exons and Introns. Introns we were told are effectively Junk DNA and they make up about 70% of your DNA structure. Recently however scientists have began to realise this is not true at all. They play apart we are just not what part!

    I can't for the life of me believe that one single gene separates sprinters, milers and middle distance horses!

    I wonder what gene sequence a horse like OASIS DREAM has? An out and out sprinter (CC), built like a sprinter (CC) but has sired milers (CT) and middle distance horses (TT)?

  4. Oasis Dream 'must' be a CT, since his dam was probably a TT (or maybe CT) and sire a CC.

    Can't help but think the most valuable part of the research is now in the public domain - they appear to have isolated a significant gene and they know how it is allocated - now so do we. But at 1k a throw, the tests shouldnt be much more than a novelty, as they are only as good an indicator as we already have in race records and pedigrees.

    Sam Walker

  5. (cross-posted on Frank's site)

    Wow! What a thrilling breakthrough! Now, with the help of a simple set of letters (and €1000), the breeder/buyer will be able to discern what the “optimum racing distance” will be for a given racehorse.

    Setting aside the obvious fact that serious students of the game can essentially do the same thing by reading pedigrees and conformation (and more accurately, I might add), let’s take a look at what this exciting new service means by “optimum racing distance”:

    5 f – 1 mile

    7 – 12 f

    10 f and over

    So, to review, for 1000 Euros this test will predict whether a horse will fall into one of three “optimum racing distance” categories. In the first, you may end up with an out-and-out sprinter which can’t stay six furlongs, or you might get a miler. The second (my personal favorite) will include runners that may find 7 1/2 furlongs to be beyond them, and those which may need every yard of 12 furlongs to be seen at their best! The third may get you a Derby winner on either side of the Atlantic, or (more likely) a horse which won’t be able to outrun the proverbial fat man.

    I mean, really, you can’t make this stuff up!

    A few days ago, prior to the roll-out of this new “service”, I compared it to the likes of heart measuring services. Now it is clear that the analogy is fairly taut, by which I mean that the two share a very important common denominator: the greatest value of each is in eliminating those animals which are unlikely to perform at a high level (i.e. those with particularly low heart scores,function, and those that have dominant staying genes). And like the heart measuring services, I predict that on balance this new venture will, when the novelty wears off, prove to be of little value to serious, experienced horsemen.

  6. Oasis Dream could be a CT (he is out of a sister to an Irish Oaks winner).

    My own speculation is that there will turn out to be some more sublety to this, such as a CT by a CT horse out of a CT mare, being a more desirable CT than a TT stallion over a CC mare, for example. With a horse like Oasis Dream, could the C be dominant in expression in hs own make up than the T (if he's a CT horse)?

    I'm sure that the "muscle type" genes are only one part of the equation. I don't doubt there are a lot of humans out there with 98% slow twitch muscle fiber, who are lousy marathon runners, because, maybe they have puny heart and lungs, or move like Charlie Chaplin.

  7. Interesting stuff, but I wonder how a horse such as Forego would have been rated as a foal: CT or TT, but certainly not a CC, yet on track he could have been -- check, he WAS -- a CC, CT, and TT, with the physique that would have absolutely said CC, NOT!

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