Eye of the Horseman - by Eric Mitchell

It is incredibly complicated to figure out what makes a Thoroughbred a gifted racehorse. If the Second Annual Pedigree, Genetics and Performance Conference held recently in Lexington had a theme, this was it.

Even with genomics research advancing so quickly, every scientist at the conference talked about genetics testing in terms of helping breeders and owners improve their odds. No silver bullet here. For every chart that showed a cluster of elite runners identified by a gene or panel of genes, there were those few individuals parked in the opposite corner of the chart—genetically identified “sprinters” that were winning classic races (like the Belmont Stakes, gr. I) and horses with a dearth of the desired genetic markers capturing graded stakes.
Dr. Matthew Binns probably put it the most succinctly: “Sometimes we just miss them.” Binns is a founding member of the The Equine Genome Project and a consultant with Genetic Edge.

Part of the challenge is in how we identify elite performance. No one at the conference is comfortable with just looking at black-type stakes winners because we have too much varying quality within black-type races—graded stakes, listed stakes, and restricted stakes. The standard now for measuring elite performance is on grade/group I winners, but even this has holes.

Biomechanical analysis has the same challenge as the genetics tests. Gait analysis and stride length do identify horses with the physical tools to be top athletes, but there are still those darned outliers. Bob Fierro and Jay Kilgore with DataTrack International passed out a list of the promising runners they identified at 2-year-olds in training sales from 2005 through 2010. Their system picked out some good ones: Big Brown, Mani Bhavan, and Brother Derek to name a few. The system also gave “non qualified” scores to grade I winners Adieu, Ice Box, and She Be Wild.

Sometimes we just miss them.

The Thoroughbred industry certainly cannot be accused of not putting enough energy or brain-power into solving the mystery of finding a good horse. The qualifications of just the speakers at the conference were impressive enough—Ph.D.s with expertise in molecular genetics, population genetics, gene mapping, molecular physiology, orthopedics, and chemistry; a Harvard-trained lawyer; and a couple of chief executive officers. Then you’ve got the decades of devoted work by all these people.

“I’m glad to see after 20 years of effort that it’s starting to pay off,” EQB’s Jeff Sedar said dryly during the conference. He is one of the pioneers in gait analysis and heart scanning.

Interestingly, all the new technology put some long-time horsemen into something of a funk. In between sessions, one of them said: “I’ve been doing this (breeding and buying horses) for more than 30 years and to see all this stuff, I’m glad it’s toward the end of my career. I just don’t know how much fun it will be when all this becomes the way we do things.”

Don’t despair, horsemen. Your trained eye and your intuition will always have a place in this industry.

Genetics, biomechanics, and heart scans are powerful tools, but none of the testing provides insight into the attitude or will—the “heart”—of the horse.

How many times have you heard the story of a top runner that caught someone’s eye at a sale; a horse that wasn’t on anyone’s short list but something in its attitude and the way the horse carried itself made an impression? Sometimes it’s a look in the eye that signals a competitive spirit within.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about people’s ability to make quick and remarkably accurate judgements in a very narrow window of time in his book Blink. The book begins with the story about an archaic Greek statue donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Expert testing concluded the statue was legitimate, but when a panel of experts first inspected the statue, their initial responses said something was not right. Details that were inconsistent with the piece’s alleged age were noticed, and now weither artists nor scientists have been able to resolve its authenticity.

The same expertise is gained by looking at hundreds of sale prospects every year or watching the development of countless foals, then accumulating the mental notes about what works. These mental notes are what make horsemen. It is the creative part of the Thoroughbred business and will always have a vital and needed place in its success.

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