The new frontier in bloodstock analysis could be on the horizon through a new company formed by two scientists from the California Institute of Technology.
The concept is genetic profiling, which the founders of Equigene Research say could dramatically alter the decision-making process in buying and breeding racehorses. The company, which last year won the prestigious CalTech Business Plan Competition, has created proprietary technology it claims can identify key genes that control performance and health in racehorses.
"The idea is certain traits run in certain families," said Dr. Carlo Quinonez, president and founder of Equigene. "If a horse is a bleeder or has soft bones, there is a genetic basis for this. Our idea is cut to the chase by finding the gene that causes this and finding out if a horse has it. Even though a horse may come from a family of bleeders, it may not inherently have that gene."
Quinonez and Dr. Daniel Meulemans, who serves as the company's chief scientific officer, planned for the business to cater to human athletes but decided to start with racehorses because there was little previous research on genetics and human athletic performance.
"It's surprising how many complex personality traits have strong genetic components," said Quinonez, a native of San Diego who knew little about the Thoroughbred industry before he embarked on the project. "Scientists have already discovered genes that influence how shy or risk-seeking a person will be. Most likely, there are also genes that influence a horse's personality--certainly traits such as docileness or libido are heritable in horses."
Equigene has received more than $100,000 in government grants and private donations so far, Quinonez said. The company is now seeking 500 "fairly good" racehorses to begin the initial study.
"Reaction has been very positive so far, but many breeders and owners are taking a wait and see approach," Quinonez said. "We are expecting to get additional funding through government grants, and if that happens, things should really get going."
In addition to its budding genetic profiling service, Equigene has created the "Smart Saddle," which can simultaneously gauge a horse's velocity, heart rate, and length of stride. Trainer Bob Hess has been active in the saddle's development, Quinonez said.
"We present the information all in easy to read English with graphs and charts," Quinonez said. "It's a snapshot of that horse's health and his performance on that day. This gives owners and trainers another way to track their horse and gives more feedback to help decide what kind of workouts are working the best."
The Smart Saddle could be on the market in the first quarter of 2004.