Friday, January 29, 2010

Selecting The Winningest Racehorses

Racehorses have been a popular way to make (and lose) money for centuries. The ability to see talent in a horse with the potential to be the fastest around a track has long been both an art and a science. Well, things at the science end are progressing.

Research is being done in locating the "speed gene," a marker in a horse's genetic makeup that may give a clue into their speed potential. Specifically, researchers have been targetting the myostatin gene, the gene responsible for muscle mass regulation. Now, at the University College of Dublin, you can send a blood sample in and for about $1,400 (a very cheap test considering that many prospective horses that haven't even been raced yet can fetch over $250,000 at auction), determine the muscle-mass genetic makeup of your racehorse prospect. They can even tell you if your horse is best suited to short sprints, the traditional middle distances, or the longer (greater than a 1 1/4 mile) races. (source story)

Clearly, there are many flaws in this test, not the least of which being overall conformation. Focusing on one gene won't guarantee you a winning horse. What if they have the muscle mass potential to run well at 1 1/4 miles, but don't have the bone structure to support it? One of the biggest problems in the Thoroughbred racing industry today is that they have been breeding more for speed and a short career rather than for toughness and sound build.

Personally, I don't see this test as changing the horse racing industry all that dramatically. It may, certainly, but the art of horse racing has a long history. Genetic tests of this sort will likely have their place, and may even help people to more appropriately race their horses at the distances that they, genetically, may do better in. But there will be stories of genetically "sprint" horses doing well at distance and visa versa. I would like to see more emphasis put on soundness and overall conformational health, and I do fear that more focus put on muscle mass may damage the breed rather than help it. Your horse may look great on paper, but if he doesn't have the bones to support it, he'll never win a race. The perfect racehorse is the complete package, and it still takes a lot of art and hope to make that come together.

No comments: