RTE covered an interesting story yesterday of research by scientists at TCD and UCD looking at the genetic structure behind the speed of a race horse. The news story can be read here. As it suggests this would offer valuable information to breeders and trainers, who have to decide the optimum distance for a thoroughbred.
My take on the science is that the researchers have located, at a genetic level, what regulates the production of myostatin protein – this proteins affects horse muscle and thus their ability to run alternative distances.
I am by no means an expert on horse biology and I am left wondering to what extent is this a heritable trait? I’d be surprised if this wasn’t discovered and accounted for by breeders and trainers already through the trial and error of the breeding process (at a non-genetic level). Surely they have learned of a horse’s raw ability early on in the training process? It would be interesting to measure how far off the judgments of trainers would be compared to the scientific recommendations.
Heritable traits do act as important indicators to buyers as seen through hammer prices, but how much of thoroughbred’s performance is attributed to genetic lineage is highly debatable. The Irish Horseracing body publicly discloses this uncertainty to potential buyers, suggesting that the attribution to genetics can even be as low as 9%. Lineage seems to offer a loose guide.
If it was possible to identify a ‘speed gene’ when thoroughbreds were only foals or yearlings, what would the implications be? My guess is that balance within races may be affected - more information could increase the precision of trainers’ judgment regarding the ideal distance for a horse. Also sale and hammer prices could be influenced if buyers seek out this information in veterinary reports. For instance, knowing that your potential purchase will be stayer may limit the selection of races relevant for the animal, the associated prize money and hence your estimate of the thoroughbred's value.
My skepticism is always raised when I hear any claim identifying an ‘x/y/z gene’ but it will interesting to see how this develops. In some ways the uncertainty associated with the breeding process and the genetic ambiguity creates lots of the drama – this reminds me of the Ned Flanders quote from the Simpsons episode Lisa the Skeptic when he claims that “science is like a blabbermouth who ruins the movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don't want to know. Important things.”
Knowing these things about horses are clearly important but despite scientific advances genetics is only part of the story and I don’t think we will be able to ever know “how the movie ends” - environmental factors such as course, weather, going, jockey, training, the role of other horses will probably always keep the drama in place.