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Are Genetics Important in Horse Racing?
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Are Genetics Important in Horse Racing?

A serial winner at the Cheltenham Gold Cup is not only displaying enormous speed and the ability to fend off competition from some of the best thoroughbreds in the world, but it is also showcasing the brilliance of its genes. There are several biggest factors that decide the success of a horse at the best races in the world, but there can be no denying that the horse’s gene makeup takes a major credit.

Desire to Recreate Frankel’s Successes

Back in 2014, a four-year-old mare called Darysina sold for just over £600,000. While she appeared to be undoubtedly special, the key reason for her value happened to be the foal that she was carrying. The foal carried the gene of none other than Frankel, widely regarded as one of the greatest thoroughbreds the world has ever seen. Frankel ended his racing career unbeaten in 14 horse racing events and is valued at more than £100 million.

It was not surprising when that foal was snapped up by a wealthy owner for just over £1 million. The foal had been produced after DNA analysis deemed Darysina and Frankel to be a great match in terms of producing an excellent thoroughbred who can replicate the qualities of Frankel.

Role Played by Genetics

Before any thoroughbred is sold in the market, buyers will be analyzing various records and statistics in order to determine its value. Yet, a huge weight is given to its bloodline, as it can show the possibility of becoming a great or mediocre horse.

Molecular genetics has helped the industry in a huge way, and genetics can display a lot of characteristics like athletic performance. The wild horses have had a set of genes that help them survive in the harsh environment, but thoroughbreds need to possess the ‘speed gene’ if they are to be valuable.

Research done by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that the factor that makes racing horses so valuable happens to be a mutation. The ‘speed gene’ was not found in the wild horses to a great extent. Yet, the desire to find this gene in almost every thoroughbred – even through inbreeding – has led to various issues, but this quality remains sought-after.

Genetics Gone Wrong

While the foal of a hugely successful horse carries a big price in the market, there have been instances where even the best in genetics have failed to produce even a moderate winner. One of the best examples would be that of Green Monkey, who went for a whopping $16 million even as a two-year-old colt back in 2006.

One of the primary reasons for this price is the incredible bloodline that he carries as the descendant of the Secretariat and Northern Dancer. Yet, he raced only four times and was retired soon after. It was a disaster. Now, Green Monkey has a home at a stud farm where his stud fee hovers around the $5,000 (£3,900). In comparison, the stud fee for Frankel is at a whopping $160,000 (£125,000).

The Problem of Inbreeding

The search for the ultimate racing horse has led to the problem of inbreeding in recent years. It has been the reason behind the numerous blood disorders faced by European royal families during the 20th century. In the animal kingdom, German Shepherds have suffered various hip problems as a direct result of inbreeding.

Even though a small degree of inbreeding can be beneficial in transferring the qualities of an individual for another generation, it can be a disastrous decision in the long run. Horse owners will be narrowing the gene pool for the future generations. The quantity of trait transfer decreases significantly with age generation so much so that a horse will have only 3% of the traits from an ancestor from over five generations.

There are instances where inbreeding works and one of the best examples would be Zenyatta. She is believed to have acquired around 6% of the DNA from Nashua. Yet, she remains as one of the American champions around after managing 19 consecutive victories over a racing career that spanned 20 years. However, there have been several cases of inbreeding affecting the horses. In the search for the ultimate genetic pool, owners often go down the risky route of inbreeding.

Pedigree Losing against Genetic Testing

The racing pedigree, of course, has often been one of the first standards that set the price of a thoroughbred, but more and more buyers are turning towards genetic testing in order to be sure about the animal that they buy. There have been several examples of buyers overpaying for horses that consistently do not do well in the actual races.

A research conducted by the Kentucky Department of Veterinary Science showed that a staggering 50% of the horses turn out to be ones with good, but not outstanding, potential. Incredibly, around 10% of the horses simply do not have the potential to justify the high dollars being exchanged at an auction.

Genetic testing has helped find the amazing qualities within Tapit, who has had an excellent stud career despite not having been a great racer. Today, Tapit’s stud fee stands in excess of $300,000.

Final Thoughts

Genetics has certainly played a major role in the last couple of years. Genetics has traditionally been used as a way to find the best possible pair. Despite not being a fool proof, it is slowly finding its way as a solution for avoiding the horses that do not have the potential. Genetics happens to be the best friend for a thoroughbred buyer.

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