If there was a take-home message from the first day of the Thoroughbred Genetics, Pedigree, and Performance Conference Sept. 7, it was this: Genetics currently is one of many tools to use for breeding horses, and given advances in science, it could be much more accepted in the future--but nothing is perfect.
The two-day Lexington conference, co-sponsored by Pedigree Consultants and Blood-Horse Publications, brought together advances in science and the tradition of pedigree research. They do clash, but attendees found the two may have more in common than is believed.
Bill Oppenheim, an analyst, journalist, and consultant, said there is far more chaos than order in the Thoroughbred breeding industry, and that probably won’t change. He said breeders can attempt to identify success, but there is no way to know when lightning will strike—or the sky will fall.
“Do we even know what to measure?” Oppenheim said. “There is no magic formula, and there isn’t likely to be one. Then what? Pedigree is a map of opportunity, not a statement of fact.
“We can use all the tools but we must try to make (people) understand there are limitations to what they are doing, and making that concession should be liberating. There is something inside (all horses) that we can’t see.”
There is some reluctance in the industry to accept use of genetics, though. Thoroughbred breeders are quietly signing on with various groups that perform tests to determine probability in breeding. The field is growing along with advances in technology.
Skepticism is tied in part to the fact using genetics to determine performance is a money-making venture. However, conference speakers made the case for their research while admitting it is quite early in the process.
A complex, subtle business
Dr. Matthew Binns of the Genetic Edge said there has been only a “slight change” in Thoroughbred inbreeding from 1961-2006, and that claims by some that horses are being “bred to death”—he mentioned Barbaro and Eight Belles—are hogwash. He said inbreeding is having only a small affect.
Binns, in using white leg markings as an example, said heritability is two-thirds genetic and one-third environmental. Thus, there can be predictability but no absolutes.
“Genes are a contributor but there are other factors going on,” he said.
Binns, citing research, said that in the past 40 years, 50% of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners actually had a sprinter profile. To that, he said: “Every aspect of this business is more complex and subtle than we believe.”
Dr. Emmeline Hill of Equinome Ltd. said that in the Thoroughbred there are four genes linked to racing phenotypes, but in humans there are 200 tied to physical activity. The company’s research has determined there are three gene types associated with distance: sprinters, middle distance runners, and classic horses that race at 10 furlongs or more.
A test is being used to select horses, train and manage them, and also optimize breeding outcomes. Hill said the research looked at body composition but found that visual observation—something commonly used to select racehorses—is “not an accurate indicator of gene type. Once horses begin training, their physical differences become more apparent.”
Hill said it’s common for buyers to pay as much for what she called a Class 1 horse as they do for a Class 4 horse. “This is a bit of a fright, really,” she said. “Buyers are paying too much for poor-quality horses.”
Dr. Steve Tammariello of the newly launched Performance Genetics said the company’s goal is to use 10 genetic variants associated with speed instead of three. Peak Beyer Speed Figures are currently being used to determine “elite” horses—those that have a speed figure of 108 or higher and have won grade I stakes--for testing.
Tammariello, however, said it goes beyond genetics; the company also employs statistical and cardio studies to rate horses.
“It’s not just about the physical sequence but about control of genetic expression,” Tammariello said. “This is the tip of the iceberg for all us, but we do think we’re on to something with this genetic model.”
In response to questions the speakers said they couldn’t reveal the names of clients because of confidentiality agreements.
A call for stamina
Sid Fernando, who operates Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, called the discussion of genetics “extraordinarily interesting.” But he said the focus should be on finding ways to return stamina to the American Thoroughbred.
Fernando noted there are now 20 grade I stakes at six and seven furlongs, something unheard of in 1970, when there was still a grade I two-mile stakes. He said stamina is waning in North America, so much so that 1 1/8-mile races are becoming the standard for “distance.”
“We’re headed in the wrong direction,” Fernando said. “Who is minding the store? Is it any wonder why our horse has become isolated internationally? We’re breeding good-class horses, but we need to put stamina in our program all the time.
“The Triple Crown is now more of an afterthought for breeders. If we’re interested in preserving the American racehorse we must take the message and fix what ails our business. We have the (bloodlines) to do it, but we don’t have the opportunity to show it.”
Binns and Hill suggested that the pattern of racing in each country can influence gene type; therefore, the emphasis on speed and quick financial return from young horses could be a factor in the American breed.
Binn went a step further, saying bluntly the industry doesn’t “cull failure” like it should. He said such practices would be “shocking” in the breeding of other species.
Oppenheim said genetics and related research will have a major impact on Thoroughbred breeding, but even when they do, there will be things that won’t change—no matter how hard people try and no matter the horse population.
“There will always be a bottom,” Oppenheim said. “Once a horse is identified as a bad sire, nobody breeds to it.”