New Research Study Provides Unequivocal Evidence that ‘Speed Gene’ is the Main Determinant of Why Some Horses are Born Sprinters

Pictured is Associate Professor Emmeline Hill, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and CSO, Plusvital.

New Research Study Provides Unequivocal Evidence that ‘Speed Gene’ is the Main Determinant of Why Some Horses are Born Sprinters

A major new study, led by researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) and Plusvital, of the race records and genetics of thousands of race horses has provided unequivocal evidence that the ‘Speed Gene’ is the main determinant of why some horses are born sprinters and others are born stayers.

The research, published in Equine Veterinary Journal, analysed the genetics and race records of over 3,000 Thoroughbred racehorses which raced in Europe, Australia, South Africa and the USA.

It found that the myostatin gene or ‘Speed Gene’ is the almost singular genetic determinant of a horse’s optimum race distance.

The research was led by UCD’s Associate Professor Emmeline Hill, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science. Professor Hill is also Chief Science Officer at Plusvital, a leading Irish equine science company, headquartered in Dún Laoghaire. In 2015 Plusvital acquired Equinome, a UCD spin-out company co-founded by Professor Hill.

The notion of a single gene being responsible for a performance trait in Thoroughbreds has previously been challenged. However, Professor Hill said the new study ended any dispute over the central role of the ‘Speed Gene’.

“We have replicated and validated our original research findings on a massively larger scale. The power in the numbers has shown that the association of the ‘Speed Gene’ with race distance is as statistically strong as the most highly genetically influenced traits in humans, including eye colour and the probability of an individual going bald,” she said.

The study found that in Europe more than 83% of ‘Speed Gene’ type C:C (sprint) horses had an optimum race distance of a mile or shorter and more than 89% of T:T (staying) horses ran best over distances greater than a mile.

The trend was consistent across all race regions but the race pattern influenced the distribution of the ‘Speed Gene’ types.

In Australia, where there is an emphasis on early two-year old speed, there were almost twice as many C:C horses among elite race winners in the population compared to Europe and North America (46% compared to 26% and 28%) and there were almost seven times as many C:Cs as T:Ts within the Australian population.

Figure: Distance distributions of C:C (sprint) and T:T (staying) ‘Speed Gene’ types for more than 3,000 horses in major racing regions

The main differences between sprinters and staying type horses has been shown to be caused by a mutation in the ‘Speed Gene’ that alters the rate of muscle growth and fibre type differences in the muscle. Although myostatin is the most important gene, the latest research has also identified additional genes which have moderate effects on the staying ability of a horse.

Professor Hill said the application of genetics to decision making about how horses were trained and raced is transforming the industry.

“Our results clearly show that using evidence-based science will lead to more accurate placing of horses in races that are best suited to their genetic potential. Horses are a product of their inherited genetic characteristics as well as the environment.”

“The management of the horse is inarguably key in any horse’s success, but DNA differences are the undisputed differences that make them individuals. This genetic information is leading to horses being trained and raced for their genetic potential and is providing a clear economic advantage to owners and trainers,” she said.

Considering the major influence of the gene, the research has relevance for the wider Thoroughbred population.

“Since there is just one gene that is a major player in the sprinting versus staying stakes, it is extremely vulnerable to selection pressures. This has been recognised by the concern in the industry over the potential reduction in genetic diversity by favouring precocious, commercially attractive horses.”

“This concern is well justified, the staying type is at serious threat of extinction in the global population. T:T (staying) types make up less than 17% of elite race winners in Britain and Ireland and less than 7% of the Australian elite winning population. This is a complete reversal from the picture of genetics of the Thoroughbred 150 years ago.”

“It is essential that the industry incentivises the breeding and racing of stayers to reduce the pressure to breed for the sales ring,” concluded Professor Hill.

The original research led by Professor Hill on the Speed Gene was published in January 2010 in the open access on-line Public Library of Science Journal, PLoS ONE. The paper was entitled, ‘A sequence polymorphism in MSTN predicts sprinting ability and racing stamina in Thoroughbred horses.’

In 2009 Professor Hill co-founded, Equinome with Jim Bolger, the renowned Irish horse trainer and breeder, to commercialise the ‘Speed Gene’ test for Thoroughbred horses. In 2015 the company, which was headquartered at NovaUCD, was acquired by Plusvital.

In 2014 Professor Hill received the NovaUCD Innovation Award in recognition of the global success and impact which Equinome had achieved in the international, multi-billion euro Thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry.

The paper published in Equine Veterinary Journal is entitled, ‘The contribution of myostatin (MSTN) and additional modifying genetic loci to race distance aptitude in Thoroughbred horses racing in different geographic regions’.


10 January 2019

For further information contact Micéal Whelan, Communications Manager, UCD Research and Innovation, e:, t: + 353 1 716 3712 or Kieran Garry, Gordon MRM, t: +353 1 665 0455.

Editors Notes

Plusvital has been a leader in equine science since its formation in 1975, growing out of Ireland’s world-famous racing and sport horse tradition. In 2015, Plusvital acquired Equinome and Plusvital now provides tests which analyse the DNA of the horse to predict optimum race distance, optimum race surface and performance potential. Plusvital’s clients include leading trainers, owners and breeders in all of the major Thoroughbred regions around the world.