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Science should not be feared but examined

FOR much of the year, in much of racing, pedigree really does not matter too much, except to stallion owners and commercial breeders, who must calculate how popular their choices will be come breeding and selling time. In the cavernous lower levels of racing, results have less to do with nicks, inbreeding and illustrious ancestors than with simple attrition.

On a day like this, though, pedigree wells up into the conversation of the most hardened form tipster. Most often, people want to know whether a horse will or will not get the Derby/Oaks/Belmont trip - a general unknown, since hardly any of the contenders will have run over the 1m4f distance.

In that case, our knowledge rests on whether the horse is bred for it or not. And this is a legitimate question, because stamina is almost certainly one of the more significantly heritable traits in the thoroughbred.

At least that is what history and our eyes tell us, harking back to Tesio's famous quote, resurrected again this week by John Oxx in reference to his ‘will he or won't he' punters' dilemma Sea The Stars. Let's run through it again:
"The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby. If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the thoroughbred."

It is a great quote, but it's dated. In the time-lapse world of modern breeding, the leading stallions cover five times as many mares each year - often in each hemisphere! - as they would have in Tesio's day. And the stallions who earn the biggest books today are generally not the Derby winners - Galileo and Montjeu, with Coolmore and a lucky star to guide them, are the rare exceptions.

Selection, such as it is, has become more random than either a piece of wood or an expert would make it, which is why we have all this meaningless lower-level racing. In the Epsom Classics, though, we find horses who were deliberately, hopefully, bred for this moment on this day, and the winning post is still there to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Yes, there is a great interest in pedigree during the Classic run-ups; yet for some reason the industry, overtly at least, does not evoke anysuch interest in genetics. Comments by scientists who lead industry-funded research teams have made that clear, and they say they are responding to the wishes of the studs and breeders.

It is a strange attitude, because pedigree and genetics are essentially the same thing. One is a relatively primitive, inaccurate attempt to describe the other, but both are used to answer the question of which traits a horse has inherited from its ancestors.

Has anyone watched the series "Didn't do me any harm" where fortyish parents force 1970's era technology and values on their children? I think it was meant to have positive nostalgic vibes, but who really wants to go back to Pong, turntables and cathode ray televisions, now that we have so much more electronic sophistication?

Genetics is a more sophisticated way of understanding pedigrees. It can help us to understand, on a molecular level, how the breed does what it does, and why some individuals do it better than others. It is not science fiction, but science, and therefore not to be feared, but to be examined.

There are many things genetics cannot do, such as tell us which horse will win the Derby. It will never - and I'm willing to put my head on the line here - create a Jurassic-park line of monster thoroughbreds who beat everything in their path.

However, it will, in future, be able to tell breeders and buyers which horses have the right ingredients, as it were, to get to the Derby, or the St James's Palace Stakes, or the July Cup. We already take a mighty stab at these things, paying consultants and theorists and vets and motion analyists to help us make the most informed decisions when buying and breeding horses. Genetics testing, when it is developed, will add another layer of understanding to our decision-making.

It could be very helpful indeed. But it will not take away that ultimately seductive question of who will be first past the post.

 

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