YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Horse Breeding for Speed Getting Down to a Science

June 05, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Even before Smarty Jones reaches the starting gate at today's Belmont Stakes, trying to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner since 1978, the race to breed another champion in his image has begun.

In Reddick, Fla., I'll Get Along -- the mare who foaled Smarty in 2001 -- is carrying a full sibling of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, due next March. Two months into an 11-month gestation, the fetus is the size of a mouse, with tiny, developing hoofs.

In Versailles, Ky., Smarty's sire, Elusive Quality, is led to the breeding shed at Gainsborough Farm two to three times a day, seven days a week, to fulfill dates with 135 mares this season at $50,000 each -- a fee that will go up next season. After his work in Kentucky is done, the stallion will be shipped to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season, where 85 mares await.

The mating of thoroughbreds in quest of victory at the track has long been a sophisticated combination of art and informal science. Owners and breeders study thoroughbreds' family trees so closely, they are more likely to be able to list a horse's great-great-great grandparents than their own.

Yet the ways genes recombine generation after generation are so unpredictable, the axiom long has been, "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best."

Now, as 100 scientists at 25 laboratories around the world cooperate to map the horse genome for the first time, geneticists and a few figures in the traditional world of thoroughbred breeding are beginning to explore the ways genetic information might enhance the chances of breeding a champion.

"Everybody is trying to get a faster racehorse," said John Adger, the bloodstock expert at Stonerside Stable, a breeding operation and racing stable near Paris, Ky., owned by Robert McNair, who also owns the Houston Texans of the National Football League. "People have been trying to do it for centuries, but again, you didn't have the mapping of the genes like you do now."

Unlike the completed map of the human genome, the equine gene map is a work in progress.

But with the advice of McNair's friend and business partner Dr. C. Thomas Caskey -- a renowned human geneticist and former president of the Merck Genome Research Institute and the Human Genome Organization -- Stonerside has begun a project with Texas A&M University in which researchers will study the DNA of thoroughbreds in search of genetic clues to their success on the racetrack.

"We are trying to find markers that may help us -- and there's no guarantee -- to differentiate between winners and non-winners. I don't want to use the word losers," said Bhanu Chowdhary, a professor of animal genomics at Texas A&M.

A British company, Thoroughbred Genetics Co., already has been advising clients on breeding and purchases for several years by using DNA analysis in addition to traditional breeding theories, though many scientists question whether enough is known about the horse genome yet to perform a marker-based selection.

Still, Steve Harrison, the company's managing director, is eagerly awaiting results as colts produced by matings he recommended begin racing in the next two years.

None of the scientists seeking answers to the centuries-old puzzle of how to breed a faster horse is proposing cloning or manipulation of the genes. They simply want to use DNA analysis as a tool to make more effective decisions about which stallions and mares to breed to one another.

Even if someone wanted to clone a Triple Crown winner, the Jockey Club, which governs the registration of thoroughbred foals, already had banned clones even before Italian scientists produced the world's first cloned horse in 2003.

The Jockey Club also prohibits embryo transfer or any form of genetic manipulation and -- in what seems an old-fashioned notion in light of advances in human fertility -- still requires the "physical mounting of a broodmare by a stallion."

Yet the ways in which traits are handed down are so complex, even a full sibling of a champion racehorse is no sure thing to succeed on the racetrack. Secretariat had a full sister, the Bride, who never won a race.

"As somebody said, Larry Bird probably has a brother who can't play basketball," said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland, the race course near Lexington, Ky., where the most prestigious yearlings are auctioned at two annual sales.

(Bird has four brothers, and none ever played an NBA game.)

"The interesting question is: What is the nature of racing?" said Ernie Bailey, a geneticist at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center and a coordinator of the international genome effort. "People come visit our lab and we tell them about genes that control immune response, disease resistance, all these elegant experiments.

"They sit patiently and listen, and then they raise their hands and ask, 'Have you found the speed gene yet?'

Los Angeles Times Articles