British Researchers Plan to Extract DNA From Three Racing Greats

Researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in Hatfield and Cambridge University in England plan to extract DNA from the bones of three of history's greatest Thoroughbred racehorses -- Eclipse, Hermit, and St. Simon. Details of the proposed study were presented at the British Association Festival of Science held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in September. By examining the genetic makeup of these horses, researchers expect to gain insight into what makes racehorses legendary, writes Chad Mendell on the Web site for The Horse:

Eclipse went undefeated during his racing career (1769-1770). He was forced to retire early because few trainers wanted to run their horses against him. Eclipse's 216-year-old skeletal remains were preserved and kept at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket, England.

"He won 18 races and usually by 10 or 20 furlongs," said Matthew Binns, the RVC geneticist leading the study, in a BBC interview. "You have to remember that races were much longer in those days (some stretched 2½ miles). He was the greatest in history, and to get a look at his genetic material will be pretty amazing."

The remains of Hermit and St. Simon have been kept in personal collections and museums. "The Victorians were very keen on turning them (hooves) into inkwells and candlesticks, and there are some of these around from famous old horses," Binns said.

According to Binns, the DNA molecule degrades quickly over time, making extraction from the remains difficult. "Dr. Mim Bower will lead this work," said Binns. "Our preferred material is a tooth because the DNA is better protected, but we'll also be tackling long bones and hooves."

Bower, of Cambridge University, and her team will use sensitive DNA extraction techniques recently developed for use in ancient human remains.

In a related study conducted by Patrick Cunningham, a geneticist at Trinity College, fewer than a dozen horses are responsible for more than 80% of today's racehorse genes.