Will DNA Profiling Create The Perfect Thoroughbred? Hold Your Horses, Experts Say

by | 02.12.2018 | 1:17pm

A new clause began showing up in the breeding contract of at least one major Central Kentucky stud farm this winter: language informing mare owners that by signing, they are giving permission to stallion farms to collect broodmares' hair samples for identity confirmation and possibly genetic analysis.

From the stallion owner's perspective, building a cache of genetic data would seem to be a good potential marketing tool or even a high-tech way to engineer a super horse. But how close are we to using DNA data to predict a horse's likelihood of reaching the Kentucky Derby gates? And should mare owners be concerned about privacy when it comes to the medical data of their breeding stock?

The answers, like much in the breeding business, are anything but simple.

What DNA can tell us

Equine genetics made headlines in 2012 when mainstream media picked up on the “Speed Gene Test.” Research by genomics scientists at University College Dublin and the University of Cambridge looked into the impacts of myostatin, a gene group which can be marked for a preference toward long or short distance.

Dr. David Lambert, president of Equine Analysis Systems in Midway, Ky., said the myostatin test remains popular among his clientele.

“I don't know what other people do but in our company we've seen fit to combine it with other tests that we do to try to give our clients a better overall understanding of a particular individual or a possibility for a mating,” said Lambert.

Since the equine genome was completely sequenced in 2006, researchers have also located the mutation that causes spotting in Appaloosa and found a link between that mutation and night blindness.

For the most part, development of testing for anything performance-related has stopped with myostatin. Diseases with a genetic link are more attractive to academic institutions, which rely on grant money to fund their projects and are more likely to get a study funded if it has wide-reaching applications.

Lambert's company offers clients analysis and consultation on bloodstock based on the traditional criteria like conformation and training, as well as more advanced technologies like echocardiography and general genetic analysis.

Although DNA analysis is a piece of the formula he uses to size up a horse, Lambert doesn't foresee the business of testing for individual genes going much further.

Dr. Ernie Bailey, immunogenetics and genomics researcher at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center, agreed. Bailey said information collection will continue to be the name of the game in the equine world.

“This type of work has been done very successfully by cattle breeding companies using large amounts of data.  Data is limited for horses. And the phenotype — racing at different distances on different tracks with different jockeys and different trainers — is arguably more complex,” said Bailey. “Therefore, it is very important for the companies doing the work to continue to collect data and learn more about the genetics of racing. Furthermore, as time goes on, selection can change the genetic profile of the population and this requires continuing testing for comparison. The success of the activity requires that the data be collected, archived and reanalyzed.”

At this point, though, genetic testing can be useful in testing some assumptions about the bloodstock business. A foal gets half its genetic material from each parent, but there's no way to reliably predict which half of which parent's chromosome ends up in the foal.

Lambert's research supports some of the notions horsemen have relied on for years, such as sires “stamping” a majority of offspring with a particular shoulder or hip consistently. He says other things, like inbreeding, don't hold up under DNA scrutiny. He studied DNA of individuals and compared them against the inbreeding visible in their pedigrees to gauge similarities to the horses with which they were inbred.

“We found there was no correlation,” said Lambert. “The amount of inbreeding in the pedigree page was not reflected in their actual DNA. A pedigree page, while generally probably indicating what's going on, could for an individual be totally misleading.”

What DNA can't tell us

Even if researchers engineered new tests for single genes impacting racing performance, genetics is only part of the picture.

“I think in the horse business people are still imagining this is going to be super dramatic and change everything, but it isn't, because a race is such an unbelievably complicated event,” said Lambert. “The things that are going on that make up a race are so many and so varied, to be able to genetically identify the animals who have got it and those who haven't got it is virtually impossible.”

Just the process of trying to isolate a gene or group of genes common to an elite group like Grade 1 winners is a statistical headache.

“Let's say you're trying to sort out Grade 1 winners. How many are there every year? [Then] once you break them up into their different groups (grass/dirt, sprint/milers, fillies/colts), there might only be a handful,” Lambert said. “You can't do an experiment on a handful. You need at least 100 if it's a simple trait, and if it's a complicated trait you need 1,000.”

Always Dreaming (Bodemeister) wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on 5.6.2017.

For example, there have only been 143 Kentucky Derby winners, many with different running styles and only a small number of which are living.

When Lambert sits down with owners and breeders, he stresses the same concepts: his measurements, genetic analysis — all of it is only part of the picture. He prefers working with owners whose trainers are open to hearing his findings and interested in providing him feedback based on their observations of the horse. Often, he says a trainer will have tried a few changes and made some progress but not quite advanced the horse to its total potential. Together, Lambert believes the team can sometimes piece together a puzzle, using reports and practical observations to better identify running style, distance, surface, or conditioning changes.

Ultimately though, this approach is only helpful for the owners and breeders willing to invest the money in the analysis itself, and the extra bills that may come with the time a trainer takes to try a new strategy.

What should owners be thinking about?

Regardless of what DNA will or won't be used for in the future, sample collection at the time of a shed appointment is almost certainly not designed to benefit the mare owner. Analysis will obviously not give either stallion or mare owner information about the suitability of a mating since the mating will certainly have taken place by the time any information could come back.

According to Bailey, there is potential for this type of collection to be used against a mare – especially if samples are easily identified.

“Horse owners should retain control over the information about their horses,” he said. “They should control who has access.  They should have assurances of anonymity for their horse if the data is used in larger, presumably randomized studies.  The worst situation would be for someone to publish damaging descriptions about a horse because of information gained through this activity.”

Then, a mare owner might consider the use of that data. In the human realm, companies like 23andme and AncestryDNA offer to provide customers a percentage breakdown of their geographical heritage. Several companies provide a breed analysis based on dogs' DNA. Sometimes, the results don't quite ring true when people open the envelopes, which may be thanks to algorithms. Each company develops its own formula for determining a human or canine genetic origin based on certain DNA markers. That means the results aren't foolproof and also that two different companies might offer somewhat different printouts based on the same sample.

The same is likely true of current and future analysts of equine DNA – results will only be as good as the database on which they're based, and those results could be swayed by the composition of that database.

That's why Bailey believes owners ought to take an active interest in this type of DNA collection.

“Horse owners should receive copies of the raw data for DNA testing. There are a relatively small number of platforms used for genomic testing of horses,” he said. “Currently the most popular is the SNP70 from a company called Geneseek in Lincoln, Neb. Many researchers are accustomed to working with this data. It might be appropriate for horse owners to ask for copies of the raw data and be prepared to share it with other scientists to confirm claims.”

  • Tinky

    Will DNA Profiling Create The Perfect Thoroughbred? Hold Your Horses, Experts Say

    My my, what would we do without those experts?

    • Cyradis4

      The scary thing is I know otherwise reasonable human beings who believe that you can currently use genetics to great the perfect critter, be it a horse, a dog, a cow, or a human. They totally neglect environmental factors… and the fact that science just isn’t anywhere near there yet.

      So yea while the article may seem kinda “Du’h” to you….. For some people who don’t really know the subject or who haven’t considered it in-depth or who lack a firm grounding in science or who are from an earlier era…. it is a solid basic article.

      Personally, I could have done with a bit more science, but I’m a science geek.

      • Tinky

        Countless millions of people assume that GMOs are perfectly safe, as well.

        But note that I wasn’t criticizing the article – only the headline.

      • Dadnatron

        Genetics has increased the milk output of cows by over 10x. The use of specific bulls and harvested ovum has dramatically altered dairy production. But… I agree with you about environmental factors.

        The longer I’m in this game… the more I think almost every one of these horses could be ‘big winners’ physiologically… but they just don’t have the ‘head’ to be a winner. I’d rather have a good ‘horse psychologist’ than a ‘geneticist’ . heh

      • LJ

        No science will ever be able to control operational and/or environmental variables that all racehorses must overcome. period…end of story…have a nice day!

  • David Worley

    I wonder if DNA analysis can identify the probability of a horse being a bleeder if not on Lasix. This could be very useful information if the sport ever wanted to take a hugely sane step forward and eliminate race day Lasix use (or at least allot an appropriate weight disadvantage to those who use it).

    • Dadnatron

      I think this is a likely thing to occur. OR, genetic testing will essentially prove that Bleeding is from ‘other’ causes not associated with the specific makeup of the horse. One of the two…

    • Bryan Langlois

      While it would be nice from a medical standpoint, can’t really see them identifying a “bleeding” gene any time in the near future. It would be very difficult to prove considering the various levels at which a horse can bleed. In addition, what do you do if your horse was found to have the gene? Would the Jockey Club say they would no longer register any horses with it? Would people have the option of terminating a pregnancy if the fetus was found to have the gene? Would gene therapy be attempted at an early stage of development to prevent the horse from bleeding? Too many questions. We can’t even get a decent sized study to be done in the US the proper way to give us definitive answers on bleeders and likely never will because of the politics involved in it.


        Even if the Bleeding Gene had been identified the Americans would say their horses are genetically different and need lasix

  • Dadnatron

    I would be willing to give my mares Genetic info if the Stud Farm will give me the Stallions as well!

    I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    I’ve tested 3 of my horses with what is not called ‘PlusVital’ and have flipped the coin on each of them. They’ve all been winners, but then again, no G1 winners as of yet. So, my info is right in line with the test… but the test wouldn’t have changed anything I did or am likely to do, with them. But perhaps if something begins to ‘trend’ it will change my mind.

  • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

    Well Bernardini and Zenyatta was supposed to be a match made in Heaven
    How did that work out?

    Cozmic One (KY) still has not broke his maiden

    Although, Zenyatta and Into Mischief sounds exciting!!! I am a big fan of Into Mischief, but we have to wait two or three year now!!!!

    As an aside I read the comments about this some commenters did not think too much of this, but I am thinking it might work and I am thinking that an Into Mischief Horse is going to win the Derby this year!!!

  • Backstretch

    Let’s suppose it works and 20-30 yrs. from now all horses are born perfect, what difference would it make? Are we then going to have 12 horse dead heats? I assume some will still be faster than others which would put us right back where we started from. An exercise in futility?

    • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

      Plus all the other variables
      The Track
      How the trainer trains his/her horses
      The Jockey
      distance horse
      and so on

  • Elle D

    At the Alltech conference last year, one of the equine sessions was about DNA profiling. It’s a bit mechanical, as if breeding isn’t already so, besides so many variables in any given race. I don’t think you can profile a mindset and the environs of the horse.

  • Michael Castellano

    Like people, horses have “personalities.” Which can have a dramatic effect on how a horse chooses to run in any given race. I suspect that many horses have the ability to run in the top tier, but do not because of their attitudes and temperment. Same is true with human athletes. Tom Brady, no favorite of mine, may be the best all around quarterback, but is far from being physically or athletically superior. Some of the great ones failed in stud. Some great ones also succeeded. Not something, I suspect, that science will solve anytime soon. We already know that on average, a top runner will produce more top runners that a lesser horse would. But this is very uneven, as many of the top bred horses never amount to much.

    • Ida Lee

      Hi Michael….I’m not a football fan by any means except maybe I do watch the Super Bowl on occasion….but even I know that Tom Brady is a supernatural force …not a “physically or athletically superior” athlete??? He most certainly is physically and athletically superior ….that is the very definition of Tom Brady …..

      • Michael Castellano

        Brady is no where near Qbacks like Aaron Rogers and Drew Breese and some others in physical and athletic ability, but is superior in the results he gets, meaning that other abilities and factors have entered into the picture. Same is true for horses.

        • Ida Lee

          Happy Valentine’s Day Michael and everybody …..explain to me why Brady is not physically and athletically blessed while Drew Breese is (I know a little more about him) …. You make it sound like Brady’s outstanding abilities on the football field are just good luck …. Brady is a superior athlete in every way and he’s proved it over and over again….

          • Michael Castellano

            Not at all. Any one who can play pro football is well above average and has to be in great shape. But there are plenty of QBs and other players that are stronger and quicker and more physically imposing than Brady. But he is the most successful at his position. That is what I am saying.

          • HowardRoark314

            If you saw a pic of Tom Brady shirtless he would look like your father. He can’t run, he can’t jump, he can’t catch (as evidenced by the ball he dropped in the Super Bowl) – yet his mind and his preparation are top notch. Along with his coaching.

          • Ida Lee

            I have seen Tom Brady shirtless….I’m still hyperventilating …

    • Agree,
      How many times have we seen the same mare bred back to the same stallion the combination having produced a stk winner only to have follow on progeny do nothing. Dna is not a simple “always lines up” thing external influences … heck who knows sun spots and increases in solar flux density could be at play when it comes to obscure mutations. Even geniticly identical human twins are differen in ways

      QH folks found that out with there embrio transfer (same stallion same mare) but implanted in a serogate mare. I beleive they tryied that with dash for cash and a couple others

      • Larry Ensor

        Full siblings rarely run, perform as well as their distinguished sibling. The only time I would be interested in a full sibling is if it were a filly/mare.

        Michael Jordon has 2 brothers and 2 sisters.

        • Lehane

          Agree. In my experience, full siblings rarely perform well. And yet at the sales the prices often go sky high because “this colt is a full brother to ……..”

    • Lehane

      Right on!

  • Ida Lee

    If I may be so bold…..but didn’t we already have the perfect physical specimen and “tremendous machine” …. his name was Secretariat ….. no DNA testing at the time of mommy and daddy …. he was foaled the usually way and he took over from there….it’s a little creepy to me to mess with DNA ….

  • Dogzilla

    Dr Lambert, whose company and opinions you prominatly figure in your article, has published nothing in any scientific journal about genetics. His history includes multiple law suits with clients and partners alleging improprieties. To refer to his “research” when zero is available for public verification is not a service to your readers. If you want more of his business story, contact former clients, like leading owner Ken Ramsey, or former major stable owner and CEO of a large company, Clint Clark in Blufton, SC.

    • The Man

      Also, Dr. Matthew Binns is a world renowned geneticist and has published a lot of papers on genetics and is an associate to Dr. Lambert and his company. The credibility of Dr. Lambert’s opinions are unquestionable to me

  • Always Curious

    A hair DNA sample is required to register a foal. What is the specific purpose and does the owner have access to this DNA information?

    • To verify parantage, they only cross match the stallion and mare to validate the foal is the result of the stated mating.

  • SLS

    I personally love the story of the cheap claimer mare bred to the second-choice stallion at the last minute on a little-known ranch in central California, which breeding produced California Chrome. Not a lot of sophisticated scientific analysis went into that one. Some breeders out there are actually “experimenting” with allowing the horses to decide with whom they will mate based on their own instincts and natural sensibilities, which process has allowed the species to survive and proliferate for centuries. Carefully calculated breeding of “the best to the best” does not necessarily pan out as we have seen time after time i.e. Zenyatta bred to Bernardini; Zenyatta bred to Tapit and countless other examples.

    • Larry Ensor

      If you think CC dam was nothing more than a “cheap claimer mare” family and his sire had no “pedigree” I think you should bone up on your TB breeding education. No snark intended.

      Yes he “out ran” his pedigree. But it is a nice pedigree to begin with.

      • sls

        Never said the sire had no pedigree. I said he was not the first choice and stepped in when the intended stallion was unavailable. The mare was claimed “inexpensively” if you like that term better. The point is, the production of CC was not the result of a lot of extensive expert nicking and bluebloods auspiciously meeting in the breeding shed.

    • Lehane

      Makybe Diva who won the Melbourne Cup 3 times bred to the best serving stallions and (to date) her offspring have been failures in racing. I’ve been told that the fact that she had a lot of hard racing could be the reason for this. Her first foal, a colt, raced for a while unsuccessfully, was gelded but he had a respiratory problem. It’s horses like California Chrome and Takeover Target who i find fascinating given they weren’t bred in the purple. Black Caviar’s dam never raced. Oscietra, BC’s filly doesn’t like racing and they’ve had all sorts of problems with her. Very recently, she went berserk in the gates so badly she had to be scratched.

      • Dadnatron

        This falls in line with something Tesio said. He believed that ‘great race fillies and mares’ essentially ‘used up’ their ability to pass that racing prowess onto their progeny.

  • John K, LeJeune

    I would say that DNA may show the potential, but then you have to factor too many variables into the finished race horse from the time the foal hits the ground. Examples would be care and feed programs, breaking situations, trainers, riders, grooms, etc., etc. DNA would give the opportunity for potential.

    • Lehane

      Totally agree.

  • Joakim Muth

    Northern Dancer and his full brother Northern Ace, Storm Cat and his full brother Namesake.
    That’s all that need to be said. (Look up Northern Ace and Namesake on pedigreequery dot com)

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