Key genes linked to motivation and attitude may explain Thoroughbred success – study

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Horse racing at Golden Gate Fields, Albany, California. Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Less than half of Thoroughbred foals actually make it to a racetrack. Some just don’t appear to have the attitude or motivation for racing. Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

New research has established that genes associated with behaviour may play as big a role as a Thoroughbred’s physical attributes in whether a horse makes it to the racetrack.

Previous studies have shown that less than half of Thoroughbred foals actually race, with durability or the ability of the horse to withstand the rigours of a training regime seen as a critical factor.

Scientists, in peer-reviewed research published this week in the journal Animal Genetics, have established that there is a genetic contribution to whether a horse is likely to race and has identified genes associated with behaviour that may be key influencers.

One of these genes is PRCP, which on the basis of these results can be considered the “Motivator Gene”.

The work was carried out by scientists at University College Dublin and equine science company Plusvital. The research was led by the university’s professor of equine science, Emmeline Hill, who is also chief science officer with Plusvital.

Hill noted that the high proportion of Thoroughbred foals that do not make a racecourse start, despite being specifically bred for this purpose, has a major economic impact not just for the owner but for the racing industry as a whole.

She says the identification of key genes opens up exciting possibilities for the sector.

“Our study of 4500 horses, some that raced and some that did not, has established a measurable genetic link to future racing potential and identified several genes of particular importance,” she says.

“The most important genes appear to be involved in neurological or behavioural traits. This is fascinating in the context of trainers’ assessments that a horse’s ‘attitude’ to their exercise regime is among the most important aspects to a positive outcome on the racetrack.

“One of the genes, known as PRCP, has previously been shown to be associated with voluntary wheel running in mice.

“Our findings support the theory that, just as with humans, motivation to exercise may be a critical factor in maintaining a training regime and achieving a high level of fitness.

“Some horses are just naturally keener for their job than others. This may manifest directly in the training environment, but it is also possible there are more subtle effects from a younger age.

“The more naturally active foal or yearling in a paddock is likely to strengthen better than others that are less naturally motivated to play and move around, and this could have knock-on effects later in life,” she suggests.

In addition to establishing a genetic link, the scientists developed a new predictive test for determining the chances a Thoroughbred has of making a racecourse start in their two- and three-year-old racing seasons.

“The prediction model analyses the DNA of a horse and then categorises them as having a ‘High’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Low’ chance of making a racecourse start.”

Horses categorised as ‘High’ are more likely to have a racecourse start, more likely to run in more races, more likely to have higher earnings, but curiously do not have a significantly different sales price.

This, according to Hill, is valuable information that even the most astute in the market currently cannot assess from the pedigree or by physical assessment of the horse.

“Of course, genetics cannot on its own replace the current tools. There are many other reasons a horse may not progress to race, through injury or the presence of performance-limiting disorders.

“But while there are veterinary screening tools for those, there is currently no other means to determine a young horse’s motivation to exercise other than long-term observation, and by then it may be too late to get the best out of them.”

Speaking about the application of the test in practice, Simon Chappell, an early adopter of Plusvital’s genetic testing technologies and the breeder of Irish 2000 Guineas-placed Decrypt, said that among the large number of horses he has tested he has seen “an uncanny correlation” between the high potential horses that do well on the racetrack and the horses that score as low potential who haven’t made the grade.

“The test matches perfectly,” he says, adding that he has noted both physical and behavioural differences in the horses.

The genetic test arising from the research, called the the ‘Raced/Unraced’ test, is available from Plusvital, which also offers the so-called speed gene test, in which the optimum race distance of a Thoroughbred based on its DNA is predicted.

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