Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Can science predict who the winner will be?

The game of Thoroughbred horse racing has always required part background knowledge and part luck to be applied when reckoning which horse in a field will end up besting its competitors. That horse's owners likely applied a similar combination of know-how with hope when they selected it at auction from among a similar selection of yearlings or two-year-olds, its breeders mixed good pedigree choices with a bit of faith when they contracted that horse into creation. But what if science could show us exactly what a racehorse was capable of achieving in its career? What if a simple genetic test could weed out the sprinters from the marathoners, and the Zenyattas from the horses that never break out of back of the pack?

As Bloomberg.com reported, scientists of the University of Dublin announced last week that such testing is actually in the works. By identifying variants of the "muscle mass-regulating myostatin gene" it has become possible to "predict a horse's optimum racing distance." For 1000 euros ($1400) and a blood sample, owners can now tell whether their horse's myostatin levels will equip it best to sprint, run middle distances, or go long in marathons. The scientists are quick to point out, however, that this is not a test to determine future champions; it is meant to determine "'what your horse is good at, not how good he will be.'" So perhaps we are not yet on the threshold of quickly identifying the next Rachel Alexandra from a crop of foals, but we can at least determine which crops should be matched against one another. Still a pretty impressive step forward, and the first ever test for Thoroughbreds that correlates genetic variability with athletic potential.

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