Jockeying for genetic advantage

May 03, 2012

When you buy a racehorse, you pays your money and you takes your chances. Top yearlings at Keeneland's 2011 Thoroughbred auction, for instance, averaged nearly $350,000 and hadn't yet raced a step. Odds are that some of them never will. Now, thanks to a Binghamton University biologist, it's possible to boost the odds of getting a winner with a simple genetic test.

ThoroughGen, founded by Steven Tammariello, associate professor of biological sciences, performs genetic testing on horses. The company offers a basic three-gene test for Thoroughbreds at a cost of $175. It screens for one gene that is vital to energy production and two tied to muscle function. Energy production is linked to stamina, muscle twitch to speed. But according to Tammariello, this is just the tip of the iceberg, adding that the horse has some 27,000 genes.

Tammariello carts a portable testing device to sales. All he needs is one strand of hair from the horse's mane and if he receives a sample by 4 p.m., he can give clients results the next morning. But the field is so new that it's still fighting pockets of resistance. Still, for many breeders in the Thoroughbred industry, genetic testing is the future. And it's the future for other breeds of horses as well, not just the racers.

"If buyers want to find out what genotype represents the best show jumpers, we can do that," Tammariello says. "I've been contacted by a group that wants to figure out which gene variants are found in top polo ponies. We can look at any variation that anybody wants to examine, in any breed of horse."

Of course, the tests aren't foolproof. The right genes don't guarantee a winner; the wrong genes don't guarantee a loser. But the tests do boost the odds of picking fast horses and avoiding slow ones. Only a small percentage of horses overcome genetic flaws.

Tammariello's research stems from being a lifelong fan of horse racing and it all started when he began to look at a horse genetically in order to get a predictor of its racing potential.

"I assumed that someone would have already done genetic testing on Thoroughbreds," he says. Yet when he did a thorough Internet search to find services, he came up with none.

"We then began to examine genes that were important to muscle twitch and energy production in multiple breeds – everything from Shires to Thoroughbreds," Tammariello says. "We found a that is in high frequency in draft horses that was also found in slow Thoroughbreds. Many of our clients have brood mares and they want to know whether they carry the variant for slower muscle twitch. Slower twitch is useful for muscular power, but not for speed. We can test a group of Thoroughbreds and predict which ones have the worst chance to make it to the track."

This gives breeders a new option. They can continue to breed top horses to top horses, or they can use the tests to figure out which horses might make the best breeding match. That should produce more good horses, though not necessarily faster times.

"Honestly, I don't think speeds will get faster," Tammariello says. "I tell my clients that this is not a way to breed superhorses. What we are trying to do is decrease the number of substandard horses that are produced, and increase the chances of producing sound horses."

According to Tammariello, at this point, there are more Thoroughbreds produced than ever make it to the track. In fact, about one-third of the Thoroughbreds born each year will never race. Some are not sound enough. Some are not fast enough. So there's a whole population of horses that no one knows what to do with. But by genetically testing stallions and mares, breeders may get a better idea which matches are likely to pay off.

"We wanted to improve the chance of horses running well," Tammariello says. "At the same time, we wanted to decrease this surplus of horses. If you have a good idea of what you will get, you may forgo breeding that have a high probability of producing foals that may fail as racehorses."

Explore further: Study solves the bluetongue disease 'overwintering' mystery

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How the 'Quarter' Horse won the rodeo

Feb 17, 2012

American Quarter Horses are renowned for their speed, agility, and calm disposition. Consequently over four million Quarter horses are used as working horses on ranches, as show horses or at rodeos. New research ...

Unmasking the matriarchs of thoroughbred racehorses

Oct 06, 2010

Thoroughbred racehorses have typically been associated with the highly-prized breeds of the Arabian Peninsula; but according to new research, their origins may be far more cosmopolitan than previously thought.

Argentine polo pony breeding boosted by biotech

Mar 31, 2011

Argentina is vastly expanding its breeding of its world class polo ponies thanks to the use of embryo transfers that help breeders get the most from their top-performing mares and stallions.

Humans aren't the only ones with obesity problems

Apr 24, 2007

Horses are inheritably couch potatoes. An overeating, slothful horse leads to an obese horse. Unlike humans, however, horse owners often don’t see the dangers of an obese horse. Caretakers may see no harm ...

Stem cell research to benefit horse owners and trainers

Oct 21, 2008

In a potential breakthrough for the performance horse industry (such as racing and polo), Melbourne scientists are aiming to harness stem cells to repair tendon, ligament, cartilage and bone damage in horses.

Recommended for you

Study solves the bluetongue disease 'overwintering' mystery

Sep 12, 2014

The bluetongue virus, which causes a serious disease that costs the cattle and sheep industries in the United States an estimated $125 million annually, manages to survive the winter by reproducing in the insect that transmits ...

Taking the 'sting' out of reproduction

Sep 12, 2014

(Phys.org) —Female parasitic wasps have more reproductive success when working together with other females, which can also explain sex biased reproduction, according to new research.

Golden retriever study sniffs for cancer clues

Sep 11, 2014

(HealthDay)—Michael Court is a scientist and a dog lover, so he jumped at the chance to enroll his golden retriever in a nationwide study aimed at fighting cancer and other ills in canines.

User comments : 0