Anne M. Eberhardt

Science in the Mix: 'Pedigree Is Genetics'

The combination of pedigree and genomics was discussed at a Sept. 8 conference.

The combination of genomics and pedigree theory hasn’t come close to reaching its potential, speakers said Sept. 8 on the second and final day of the Thoroughbred Pedigree, Genetics, and Performance Conference in Lexington. But their link, in the words of one pedigree specialist, can’t be ignored.

“Pedigree is genetics,” said Byron Rogers of Pedigree Consultants, which co-sponsored the event with Blood-Horse Publications.

The second day of the conference wasn’t as science-heavy as the first, but science shadowed the proceedings. There’s probably no sound means to gauge heritability in breeding without it, speakers said.

“We still need to do a lot of work to find out how well it will work, but the outcomes will be qualified,” said Rogers, who recently launched the company Performance Genetics with partners. “It’s not like we’re going to be breeding 10 Secretariats. It’s a risk prediction. We’ll take a holistic view of it all and put it into a model.”

Alan Porter, a partner in Pedigree Consultants and Performance Genetics, said one goal is to attempt to analyze a horse’s entire pedigree with success, because “sometimes the combination can be greater than the parts.” He said the TrueNicks system of scoring “nicks”—successful crosses between a sire and a broodmare sire—is being expanded to take into account the broader pedigree picture.

“We’re much more consistent and much more informed now,” Porter said. “The potential for this is huge.”

Dr. David Lambert of the Genetic Edge, which has scanned the hearts of about 35,000 Thoroughbreds, advocated a “traditional approach” to pedigree and breeding combined with science, though he acknowledged science “will not cherry-pick elite horses.”

Lambert said the short-term challenges for the Thoroughbred industry are reliability of testing; the damage wrought by unreliable results; the fact scientific selection is not absolute; the need for everyone to be on the same page, not an easy task in a tradition-bound industry; and recognition that horses fail.

Lambert said breeders are embracing technology, perhaps more than believed. He said “science teams” accounted for about $15 million in purchases at last year’s Keeneland September yearling sale, more than the usual prominent buyers.

“There are new owners out there that are looking for this type of information,” Lambert said of various programs that provide analysis of cardiac capacity, conformation, genetics, breathing, and motion. “It’s a great benefit to the industry that we’re here.”

Dosage alive and well

Dr. Steve Roman, known for his work on the Dosage Index and identifying chefs-de-race, or stallions that appear in pedigrees with great frequency in top runners, discussed links between pedigree and performance. Like Sid Fernando of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants the day before, Roman tackled stamina—and the need for it in Thoroughbred racing.

Roman said stamina, in his opinion, is carrying speed over distance. He cited personal research that indicates North American horses that race on dirt are more speed-bred than horses in other parts of the world.

Dosage, a technique for classifying Thoroughbred pedigrees by type, began in Italy in the mid-20th Century. Roman said it wasn’t intended to set an absolute threshold number for 3-year-olds that compete in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) each year, but its use for that purpose muddied the picture.

Roman said the trend line for the Dosage Index has been consistent for 60 years. He recalled when Andy Beyer, creator of the Beyer Speed Figures licensed exclusively to Daily Racing Form, called Dosage fraudulent.

Roman said he matched Beyer Speed Figures with Dosage numbers for horses that ran in the Derby for 20 years and found that as the Dosage Index goes down, the quality of performance increases. “That’s contrary to what he says,” Roman said. “I do my own speed figures.”

Taking it in stride

Earlier in the Sept. 8 program, Jay Kilgore, director of racing for Datatrack International, explained how his company’s methods of analyzing stride, length, and other factors of horses in motion at 2-year-old breeze-up shows have proven successful in narrowing down the best runners.

Datatrack invented the term “BreezeFig,” which is a number that combines time, stride length, miles-per-hour, and a set of power factors for every horse that breezes at 2-year-olds-in-training sales. In its testing period at 2-year-old sales from 2001-03, the company found that 90% of the stakes winners that graduated from those sales fell within an extremely consistent BreezeFig range.

Datatrack provides charts to customers that rank 2-year-olds in terms of stride length, BreezeFig, and whether they are over or under “par” based on their performances at 2-year-old auctions. The company developed a par for every distance, for each sex, and on each day that those horses breezed.

Horses are ranked in the “Group 1” category if they scored a BreezeFig at or above par and scored well on the company’s other digital tests. Group 2 horses scored a BreezeFig at or above par and scored well on most but not all tests, Kilgore said.

“Most of the time we can spot the underrated freshman sire at the 2-year-old sale based on what the 2-year-olds do on our BreezeFigs,” said Bob Fierro, managing director of Datatrack.

Datatrack’s BreezeFig program has the technology to shoot a video of a horse in motion and measure not just its stride length, but also the distances from various angles of the horse as it is running.

“We’re looking at the biomechanics of a horse’s stride—not just stride length or angles, but the actual biomechanics of a horse in motion,” Kilgore said. The BreezeFig program, which factors a horse’s length and height into the equation, also examines every time a horse’s feet touch the ground and how well the horse travels.

One of the other factors the program examines is “thrust,” which is how well a horse uses its rear end.

“Some people wonder what makes Zenyatta so good; she has a lot of thrust—she’s a machine considering her size, and she’s as good as they get based on what we’ve done here,” Kilgore said of the mare when she raced. “She is also a very fluid and efficient mover.”

Examining body type

During a session hosted by Jon Seaman of Cecil Seaman & Co., the successful patterns of breeding “likes to likes” in terms of a horse's body type were examined.

Seaman noted that in a sample group of 64 mares that had produced stakes horses by Unbridled's Song, 70% were very similar in body type to the stallion, and 75% had a leverage score of seven or above.

“Instead of just looking at the cross (when breeding a mare to a stallion), people also need to examine the size of the horse, because some mares aren’t typical sizes of certain stallions,” Seaman said.

Seaman said he likes to see “as much of a homogenous family as possible” in stallions. He used Smart Strike as an example of a stallion with a larger body type, and noted how most of his family is similar in stature, with leverage scores of four, five, or six.

In the majority of top nicks that have resulted in 25% stakes winners or more, Seaman said less than 10% have worked by breeding two different body-type extremes.

“There’s about two to three inches of leeway in body types between stallions and mares,” Seaman said. “There aren’t too many crosses that have worked well beyond that.”

Esther Marr contributed to this story