I’m pleased to report my first Scientific American byline.
Born to Run
When the Kentucky Derby winner crosses the finish line in front of 160,000 roaring spectators on May 5, there’s a good chance it will have two copies of a gene that makes a horse a sprinter.
The so-called speed gene, which several laboratories say determines whether a horse prefers a short sprint, a marathon or something in between, is just one of the genetic markers identified in the search for the roots of elite performance in thoroughbreds. Now the race is on among five or six commercial laboratories to convince thoroughbred breeders and buyers that testing for this gene and other markers is the road to the Triple Crown. In the meantime, the geneticists behind these companies scramble to lay claim to the best markers for athletic traits. Major thoroughbred farms are signing up horses for testing, even though some say they’re not sure what the results mean.
“We don’t know what to make of it,” says Elliott Walden, president, CEO and racing manager of Winstar Farms in Versailles, Ky. Winstar, the 685-hectare birthplace of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, is dabbling in genetic testing. “We don’t know how to evaluate the information. We’re still figuring it out.”