The recipe to breed a champion remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.  It’s an adage we’ve all heard and can be attributed to American John E Madden.  A prolific owner across both the galloping and harness code, Madden bred 14 “champion” racehorses, including five Kentucky Derby winners, four Belmont Stakes winners and the first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton.

He was also a bit of a trader – specifically in his earlier years when purchasing and improving horses – and claimed his motto was: “Better to sell and repent than keep and resent.”

It would also appear, based on that and his breeding mantra, he had a very tidy turn of phrase.

Which brings me back to breeding theories and the fact that champions can come in any shape or size.  They can either burst on to the racing stage as a ready-formed star or emerge more slowly, with time their friend as their talent blossoms as they mature.

It was something I got to thinking about again earlier this week after reading a fabulous piece from The Conversation, an independent media outlet which carries pieces predominantly written by academics.  Should be dull as ditch water, right? Not this piece.

The article in question was authored by Steven Tammariello, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute for Equine Genomics, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

I recommend you check it out in its entirety here.

What captivated me was largely what the author said intrigued him and that is how variations of genes impact on performance and/or development –  given he is a molecular physiologist, he has the ability to investigate further.

Faced with the incredible opportunity to do a little DNA testing on the mighty Seabiscuit Tammariello and his team leapt at the chance.  The source of this elusive DNA was slightly creepy, a couple of silvered (as in, dipped in silver) hooves from the champion racehorse.  Just reading about this brought back memories of some of the more macabre mementoes of our own racing heroes which were once housed at Ellerslie racecourse as they awaited a permanent home.  From memory there was an inkwell made from one of Carbine’s hooves, slightly more useful than Seabiscuit’s ornamental hoof.

Despite the age and deterioration of the hooves DNA was able to be extracted from Seasbiscuit’s coffin bones.  However, the nuclear DNA – layman’s description being the DNA inherited from all ancestors – was “somewhat degraded”.  The mitochondrial DNA – that which is only inherited from the female lineage – was described as intact and that allowed the team to confirm the hooves did come from Seabiscuit.

Despite the state of the DNA it was possible for some sequencing to be done around those genes related to racing distance.  From these it was determined that Seabiscuit’s gene variants were those often found in horses which are good over ground.  But, he also had minor variants which are usually found in sprinters.

The article stated:

This somewhat rare genetic combination of stamina and speed seems to be reflected in the champion’s race record, as he won races from as short as 5 furlongs (sprint) to as long as 1¼ miles (distance). Further, horses of today that we’ve identified with this genotype tend to be late bloomers, winning their first race almost three months later, on average, than horses with a genotype associated with precocity. Sounds like Seabiscuit’s race record: He didn’t become a true racing star until his 4-year-old racing season.

Of course, the obvious question – well, the one which leapt into my mind straight away – is, does this mean we can clone Seabiscuit?

Apparently, due to the quality of the nuclear DNA and the small amount retrieved, that is not an option – “for now.”

Instead the team is going to continue to examine Seabiscuit’s genome and attempt to discover more about just what it was which made him so special, especially given his well-chronicled physical defects (smaller than average; unusual gait; crooked legs – let’s just say he wouldn’t have made Book 1).  They will also be looking to see whether his DNA differs wildly from that of the modern thoroughbred.

What is going to be interesting in the future is how breeding theories may eventually end up going out the window.  No more breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, in the future we will be able to look at a foal’s DNA and have an indication as to that animal’s precocity or otherwise and its optimum distance.

How far down that line can we end up going, and how accurate will those predictions be?  Surely, other external factors will still come into play with environment also continuing to play a part?

While I embrace these scientific advances I also tend to lean towards the romantic when it comes to breeding.

Indulge me a little as I now deviate into one of my favourite breeding tales, that of the Oaks and Derby winner Signorinetta, a true “love child.”

Her story begins with owner and breeder Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli and a mare called Signorina who was no slug on the racetrack, being unbeaten in nine races at two, including the Middle Park Stakes; the winner of two more races at three and runner-up in the Oaks; and the winner of the Lancashire Plate as a four-year-old.

At stud though over ten seasons she had not produced a live foal before leaving Signorino who ran second in the 2000 Guineas before finishing third in the Derby.

A stallion called Chaleureux, who is variously described as a “nine guinea stallion” or a teaser – take your pick – used to pass Signorina’s box every day and, every day the mare would call to him.  This convinced her passionate Italian owner the horses were “in love” and he allowed Chaleureux to cover his prized mare.

The resulting foal Signorinetta was trained by Ginistrelli himself and while she may have won both the Oaks and the Derby it is widely agreed that the quality of that year may have been lacking.

There is also a quirky tie to New Zealand through Signorinetta with one of her offspring, the 1912 filly Pasta (by Thrush) being the dam of six-time leading NZ stallion Hunting Song.

We may be making rapid advancements in the world of science and its contribution to breeding but until such time as we can create the perfect racing specimen in a lab there will always remain an element of the unexpected and unexplained in the make-up of our champions.

In the words of another passionate Italian: “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” (Federico Tesio).

 

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