Innovations discussed at Plusvital conference

Genetic tests can indicate whether a foal will start as a two-year-old

PICTURE: Edward Whitaker ( Innovations discussed at Plusvital conference By Tom Harris 1:20PM 21 OCT 2016

IN 2006 the equine genome was sequenced for the first time. In the ten years that have followed, thoroughbred genetics has risen from obscurity and is becoming an ever more mainstream tool used by owners, breeders and trainers.

Plusvital, a major player in the development of the industry, is aiming to increase the levels of awareness in the field of equine genomics through a series of seminars, the second of which took place on Tuesday in Newbury.

The talk from Plusvita chief operating officer Donal Ryan was easily accessible for those without a scientific background and aimed to show the relevance and application of an array of performance-based tests developed as a result of Plusvital's ongoing research, which is closely linked with University College Dublin.

Equinome, which was acquired by Irish nutrition company Plusvital last year, was launched in 2010 following the discovery of a single genetic marker that led to its flagship Speed Gene Test.

This test, which gives a strong indication of a horse's optimal distance and degree of precocity, famously deterred the connections of Galileo Gold from a tilt at the Derby earlier this year.

The test revealed him to be a ‘C:C' which indicated he had only a two per cent chance of his optimum racing distance being at 1m2f or beyond. Jim Bolger, one of the original partners in Equinome, is also a major advocate of this test and has, according to Ryan, "doubled his two-year-old strike rate in three years [. . .] by adjusting his breeding and focusing on developing training regimes subject to [each horse's] genetic type."

The merger of Plusvital and Equinome has ensured that €3.5 million has been allocated for research and development over the next three years. Much of this money will be spent identifying health traits, with the aim of breeding out genes that predispose horses to injuries and other conditions such as wind problems.

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Furthermore, Plusvital aim to combine their expertise in nutrition with the genetics knowledge of the Equinome team, to promote nutrigenomics. This current research aims to give more targeted feeding based on the individual genetic make-up of each horse.

Equinome, and now with Plusvital, have undergone an exponential expansion in the past couple of years both in its client base, which now extends to 28 different countries worldwide, and the range of its tests.

As well as a more comprehensive version of its Speed Gene Test, the Distance Plus, which gives a more specific distance at which you may expect each horse to excel, Plusvital now also advertises a number of other tests.

The first of these tests is the Elite Performance Test, which predicts genetic potential for racing and breeding success. Now on its third version, this test exemplifies the increasing intricacy of Plusvital's work. Version 1, in 2011, used just 80 genetic markers. This number rose to 1,000 for Version 2 in 2014 and now stands at over 48,000 different genetic markers for Version 3.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the Elite Performace Test, Plusvital tested 520 yearlings across the Magic Millions Gold Coast, Melbourne Premier and Inglis Easter yearling sales in 2014.

Each horse had its DNA analysed from a blood sample and was then given a Genomic Racing Value of 1-4, with 1 being the highest value.

As the tests were conducted in 2014, the horses tested have now completed their three-year-old seasons, which allows us to look at the test's reliability. The results show that horses in Classes 1 and 2, the half of the group of yearlings that were given the highest likelihood of racecourse success, won A$44,000 more on average than the horses in Classes 3 and 4, the half that were given a lower chance of racecourse success.

The Plusvital team also ran their Raced/Unraced Test, which aims to separate individuals based on their potential to have a racecourse start as a two- or three-year-old. Horses given a high chance of racing raced 65 per cent more times on average than those horses given a low chance.

Furthermore, the higher chance horses also amassed A$22,000 more in prize-money on average. Interestingly, across the three groups of High, Medium and Low potential to race, there was no significant difference in the average yearling price. This shows that the test is able to discern traits in a yearling that reduce its likelihood of racing, which the buyers across the three sales were not able to detect.

Plusvital has also launched a further two tests. The Projected Height Test, which gives an estimation of mature height, +/- 1 inch, in 70 per cent of cases and also the ‘Turf vs Dirt test' which aims to help American trainers decide their horses preferred surface before their first run.

It is important to note that although these tests have shown some exciting results, equine genetics is still in its infancy and will develop hugely in the years to come. Plusvital was keen to point out that these tests are designed to be an extra tool that works alongside existing horsemanship techniques and that environmental factors such as training and feeding are still responsible for at least 60 per cent of a horse's performance.

Their remaining two seminars are due to take place at Wetherby Racecourse, Yorkshire (October 20) and The Horse and Jockey Hotel, Tipperary (December 5).

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