The topic that attracted the keenest debate when the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association kindly hosted delegates from 35 countries at the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation congress over Irish Champions weekend was genetics.

While ITBA’s hospitality was greatly appreciated, the opportunities presented by bringing together so many breeders from around the world were invaluable, since such gatherings allow us to share common ideas and problems, look ahead to issues on the horizon for the thoroughbred breeding world, and consider how to address them.

The congress in Kildare included interesting talks on the review of radiographs at public auction and the pressing need to do something about endoscopy of foals at sales, but the issue that really concentrated the mind was that of genetics, which was raised in presentations by Dr Brandon Veile, from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, and Prof Max Rothschild, from Iowa State University in the US.

Dr Veile set out to demonstrate that the value of the new genomics technology extends far beyond DNA performance profiling

Dr Veile set out to demonstrate that the value of the new genomics technology extends far beyond DNA performance profiling, while Prof Rothschild drew on his extensive experience of the application of the relatively new science of genomics in the pig, dairy and beef industries.

Both were positive in their outlook, although Prof Rothschild did illustrate the limitations of DNA performance profiling, and this in itself helped to highlight concerns that surround the topic. This is an enormous subject and its discussion will have many twists and turns.

Dr Emmeline Hill, whose work in genetic research has been taken up commercially by Equinome’s scientists at University College Dublin, recently presented her findings to some of the TBA board and our veterinary advisors, and her progress with the ‘Speed’ gene is fascinating.

It is for others to judge how useful the results are as an application for making judgements on breeding. And, of course, by paying for tests, some will see themselves as being in a position to gain an advantage in assessing the distance over which their horse is likely to excel.

So far these are, for the large part, imponderables. What we do know is that geneticists have worked on farm animals for many years and Prof Rothschild’s presentation explained how straightforward the work had been in these fields. As he also explained, the thoroughbred is much more complicated, and there are a multitude of different genomic markers that influence a horse’s make-up and performance.

Prof Rothschild told congress delegates: “The accuracy of predictions depends greatly on the number of phenotypes measured. As you collect more data, predictions will change. The predictions we have now are based on the data we have now.”

This is the crux of the matter. Sufficient data must be provided to make proper judgements, and there must be complete faith in the integrity of the data.
The world of farm animals works with a huge pool of information, and it has been estimated that a minimum of 9,000 credible samples would be necessary to have a meaningful impact in thoroughbred breeding. That represents a large herd of horses that can be gathered only from many sources, but at the moment studies are using just a fraction of those numbers.

Prof Rothschild warned that genomics is an area that mystified people. He may be right, which means it is imperative that while this slightly alarming new territory is in its early stages and scientists from around the world are working to uncover the secrets, we must ensure that as much information as possible is in the public domain. Data should not be held in the hands of individual organisations who use it only for their own gain.

The TBA, to which I welcome long-serving council member Paul Greeves as Deputy Chairman, will keep a close eye on developments, ensuring that every breeder is as well informed as possible. We must avoid falling into a trap that was highlighted by Prof Rothschild when he noted that concentrating on just one trait, such as higher milk yield, brought with it the law of unintended consequences.