Mick Goss
Given the billions of dollars invested in it, it’s hardly conceivable that the breeding of racehorses could be so deficient in scientific research, but because it’s a fact, the work of Dr.Hill thus far has been ground-breaking, even if it’s only in its infancy.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO

One of the more riveting presentations at the Winter Workshop in our School of Management Excellence came courtesy of Dr. Emmeline Hill, a geneticist at University College, Dublin, where her good work and that of her team has been enterprisingly supported by a government-inspired grant under the commercial appellation, "Equinome". While Dr.Hill volunteered that there is much work to be done in the exploration of the field of thoroughbred genetics, what they have been able to achieve to date is the isolation of what they term the "speed gene", which amounts to a determination of the aptitudinal properties of a given racehorse, and the outcomes such a racehorse will impart to its progeny in the distances over which they are likely to excel.

While great strides have been made with cattle, sheep, pigs and the like in the production of milk, beef, lamb and pork for example, thoroughbred breeders have for centuries preferred the romantic theories that thrive only in a pursuit in which mystique and intrigue are the principal bedfellows. Any gathering of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Association is bound to embrace an array of searching (not to mention controversial) topics, yet the one that caught everyone's imagination earlier this month in Dublin, was the matter of genetics.

Given the billions of dollars invested in it, it's hardly conceivable that the breeding of racehorses could be so deficient in scientific research, but because it's a fact, the work of Dr.Hill thus far has been ground-breaking, even if it's only in its infancy. In that sense, the contributions of Dr.Brandon Veile of Sweden and Prof.Max Rothschild of Iowa State University were both lessons in how far we still have to go in our attempt at breeding the genetically perfect animal. Since the variables are so considerable and remembering that we are dealing in flesh-and-blood, the likelihood that the point of such perfection will ever be reached is remote, but that shouldn't deter an investigation of how much we can harness the science of genetics in the contest to outwit one another. Whether latching onto these tools as they devolve will bring us to a place where all we're doing is reducing the art of breeding to a matter of mathematical equations, is impossible to contemplate right now; what we do know is that scientific certainty will compromise the fascinating coals that warm the cockles of our conversational fires in the autumnal months and weeks ahead of the breeding season. For the time being though, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that the new genomics technology must extend well beyond DNA performance profiling alone, and that the role of the stockman, rather like that of the on-field umpire, remains not only relevant but vital to the welfare and the evolution of the breed.

Though it has to be an advantage to be able to assess the distance over which a horse is best suited, for the large part, we should remember how complicated an animal the thoroughbred is. A fortnight ago, Summerhill and Hartford played host to the sitting chairman of the English Thoroughbred Breeders Association, Julian Richmond-Watson. He alerted me to an article he had recently authoured for the UK's Owner -Breeder magazine on the topic. As an attendee at the conference in Ireland, he quoted Professor Rothschild whose study of genetics in farm animals extends over decades, and who explained how straightforward the work had been in those fields.

The learned professor also alluded to the complexities in the production of thoroughbreds and that there were a multitude of genomic markers which influence a horse's makeup and performance: we assume that beyond speed and stamina, he was referring to factors such as temperament, soundness, mental strength and physical durability, intelligence, courage, endurance and the will-to-win. These elements have been embedded in the DNA of thoroughbreds through a process of centuries of selection, and they are the hallmarks by which the breed is distinguished from others of the equine genus. By contrast, a cow may be bred for the production of milk, and milk alone, while a pig's development may be limited to the maximisation of pork production from a quantitative and a qualitative perspective. For these creatures, the old order of the Darwinian world of "survival of the fittest", has already been replaced by the Newtonian clockwork of interlocking parts.

These animals are not required to be courageous, durable, noble or gracious, nor for that matter do they need to be particularly intelligent. They are not called upon to run fast or to endure over a distance of ground either, which makes the task of breeders in these spheres that much simpler. According to Professor Rothschild, "the accuracy of predictions depends greatly on the number of phenotypes measured. As you collect more data, predictions will change. The predictions we have now are based on the data we have now". This, according to Julian Richmond-Watson, is the crux of the thoroughbred matter. The world of farm animals has been judged from a huge pool of information, and it has apparently been estimated that a minimum of 9000 samples would be necessary to form meaningful assessments in the thoroughbred realm.

Given the hundreds of theories which have served more to baffle breeders of racehorses over the centuries than anything else, it's a daunting thought that in Professor Rothschild's opinion, genomics is an area that has and will continue to mystify people. The unravelling of the scientific secrets behind the art of breeding racehorses is at the same time both challenging and exciting, as well as contradictory; we speak of an "art", which, it undoubtedly is, and yet here we are embracing a science which, in the world we live in, we might expect to be "exact". Personally, I doubt whether in my lifetime, we shall witness in the business of racehorse production, the advances technology has thus far predestined for every other sphere of animal endeavour. That said, I'm reminded that in today's technological world, when a scientist tells you something is "possible", he has probably underestimated how long it will take to achieve. When he tells you it's "impossible", the probabilities are that he's wrong.