The speed gene

16 August 2021 Written by Michael Lynch

When Dr Emmeline Hill identified a unique sequence of the equine genome dubbed the ‘speed gene’ in 2009 at University College in Dublin, she was certain the discovery had the power to change the racing industry.

Not even the most ambitious projection could foresee that her genetic tests would influence a Lexus Melbourne Cup, Newmarket Handicap, and Cox Plate result in the same Flemington stable all in the space of a decade. 

Reflecting on the impact of speed gene research around the world, Dr Hill is thrilled that her work has helped identify the strengths of horses like Vow And Declare, Russian Camelot, and Shamus Award.

“With an increasing number of owners also learning about the information that genetic testing can provide, we have certainly noticed a greater interest in and knowledge of what this testing can offer,” said Dr Hill.

“This renewed curiosity hasn’t just been restricted to Australia, but all of the world’s major thoroughbred regions.”

Indeed, the O’Brien stable isn’t the only Australian yard taking advantage of genetic testing. Lindsay Park has utilised the science for years, and former AFL premiership-winning coach turned horse trainer, Denis Pagan declared after the great run of his first Flemington runner, young stayer Johnny Get Angry which came third place, that he used the speed gene test to help program his horses.

The test itself doesn’t predict how good a horse might be, merely the optimum distance range that their genes say they will perform at.

“It is important to recognise that genetics is part of the puzzle that should be used to complement all the other information about the horse, and the environment plays probably an even greater role than genetics,” said Dr Hill.

“If you look at heritability, which is the genetic contribution to the variance in performance, it’s nowhere near the whole; it’s maybe 30 to 40 percent. Genetics will never be the silver bullet people think that it might be, but nor is it fool’s gold.”

It was less fool’s gold and more real gold in the shape of a couple of big trophies for Danny O’Brien Racing, the stable investigating the speed gene when a talented New Zealand-bred colt offered a moment to pause for thought. 

2013 Group 1 Lexus Newmarket Handicap winner Shamexpress should be a poster-horse for the benefits of genetic testing, his career perhaps looking a lot different without the speed gene test.

“Shamexpress was by O’Reilly out of a Volksraad mare, so you immediately think he’s got Derby written all over him, but when he won over 1200m down the straight at Flemington on debut, we thought, hang on, wait a minute,” said Matt Harrington, General Manager at Danny O’Brien Racing.

“We took him towards the Group 2 Sires’ Produce (1400m) and he was ok. We brought him back in the spring and he ran really well in the McNeil Stakes over 1200m before he failed in the Golden Rose and Guineas Prelude, both at 1400m.

“On pedigree we could have pushed on to the Guineas, but we got the Speed Gene test results back after the Guineas Prelude and it showed he was a C:C (a sprinter).

With an increasing number of owners also learning about the information that genetic testing can provide, we have certainly noticed a greater interest in and knowledge of what this testing can offer.

We decided to freshen up and go to the Group 1 Coolmore Stud Stakes down the straight and he ran a massive race to run third at $51. We changed his program from then on and he won the Newmarket that summer and became a Group 1 sprinter but without the test we could have ruined his career.” 

The speed gene classifies horses into three genetic types, a C:C or sprint-miler; a C:T or middle-distance horse; and a T:T or true stayer. By identifying which genetic type a racehorse is from an early age, trainers can train them accordingly and map out the most suitable path for their career.

Breeding a C:C mare to a C:C stallion will produce a C:C foal, but variation occurs when horses from different genetic types are mated together, with a range of different outcomes possible. 

“Shamus Award is another great example,” said Harrington.

“He is by Snitzel, a known speed sire, but when we tested Shamus he came back as a C:T so we aimed towards the Caulfield Guineas and Cox Plate. His DNA indicated that he could get that trip.”

“Seventy-five to eighty percent of the time you can get it right off the pedigree and type, but this is another tool and another piece of information that can help you shape the career of the horse.”

2019 Lexus Melbourne Cup winner Vow And Declare tested up as a T:T Long, a true stayer, so the O’Brien camp planned a career around long-distance races with the dream of getting the horse to Flemington on the first Tuesday in November.

“We knew there was no need to judge him on anything he did early. He made his debut over 1500m and three starts later beat older horses to win his maiden over 2400m at Warrnambool. Genetically he could handle that quick leap in trip – it’s what he was made for,” said Harrington.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Dr Hill and the team of researchers at PlusVital continue to map the equine genetic sequence and are working on the ‘Motivator Gene’, which indicates a horse’s willingness to exercise and work.

“In a study of 4,500 horses, our findings supported 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 with favourable copies of this gene are just naturally keener for racing than others,” she explained.

“I firmly believe that now that there is a much more widespread understanding and appreciation of genetics in our culture, owners, breeders, and trainers will feel more comfortable and confident engaging with genetic information for their horses, and that they will be rewarded with greater success.”