By Mark Berner and John Pricci —
The team of managing editor Mark Berner and John Pricci, founder and executive editor of HorseraceInsider.com, have done a series of researched reports like this before; a synopsis follows. While at Newsday, a lifetime and a half ago, they won awards doing so.
Times have changed but many of the issues have not. If you advocate for horses, care about the welfare of animals, love Thoroughbreds, and the sport of horseracing, you need information about the current progress of equine safety.
As a result of the referenced HRI series, scientist contact, Dr. Nena Winand, received a cease and desist order for making public her genetic research on pedigrees. The previous day, The Jockey Club notified HorseRaceInsider authors via email that we were indulging in junk science.
Last week, an announcement regarding a proposed policy change in the area of equine genetics relating to matings came with the following headline: “The Jockey Club Considers Rule Regarding Breeding Stallions.”
The Jockey Club declared that its board of stewards, concerned with the narrowing of the diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool, is considering a rule to limit the annual breeding of individual stallions starting in 2021.
The statement informed in part: “Established in 1894, [The Jockey Club] is the keeper of the American Stud Book and maintains the Principal Rules and Requirements of the American Stud Book in order to ensure the welfare of the Thoroughbred breed.”
Maybe some testing has already been conducted.
In Lexington, where arguably the most comprehensive horse auction in the world, aka the Keeneland Fall Sale, commenced Monday, horse excrement already was visible on air-conditioning ducts in Kentucky and perhaps every other sales ring in this U.S.
The following is an excerpt from a report posted at HorseRaceInsider.com April 3, 2019, edited for brevity and context:
“HRI EXCLUSIVE: Mutant Gene Causes Horse Bleeding and Breakdowns
By Mark Berner and John Pricci
“Everyone at Santa Anita Park looked for a silver bullet, that one thing that caused the recent cluster of catastrophic breakdowns at the Arcadia track. Officials of The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita, said it is multifactorial, but they are wrong.
The single uniting factor is Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome (WFFS), a genetic mutation first discovered in Warmblood horses…
Nena Winand, DMV PhD., a genetic scientist, identified WFFS at Cornell University in April 2011. She believes the mutant gene is present in at least 15% of all Thoroughbreds and may be as high as 30% or more in the US, where lines of bleeders have been highly selected…
Read full story here: www.horseraceinsider.com/hri-exclusive-mutant-gene-causes-horse-bleeding-and-breakdowns
WFFS prevents collagen–the body’s most abundant protein and the glue that holds together all living things–from forming properly, thus keeping the protein from doing its job.
Collagen is necessary to form strong cell walls like those that keep blood vessels from bursting under pressure. Collagen also is involved with the creation of strong bones, helping to keep them from shattering under stress. Collagen also forms connective tissue that keeps muscles attached to bone.
Some Warmbloods with this affliction have bones too weak to stand on, skin that falls off upon contact, and vessels too weak to hold blood. Such animals are euthanized at birth.
Thoroughbreds do not suffer to the extent Warmbloods do, but they do suffer enough to bleed through underdeveloped blood vessels and suffer broken bones that have not formed properly…”
Read full story here: www.horseraceinsider.com/racing-must-not-ignore-recent-science
The Jockey Club is the only Thoroughbred industry organization that can be likened to a central authority, which makes last week’s announcement so significant. It is a measure that could at long last begin to address root causes of injury and disease in the Thoroughbred.
In short, soundness can be bred back into the Thoroughbred. Of course, it’s a process that will not bear fruit overnight. Perhaps a half-century needs to pass before Thoroughbreds would be significantly healthier at birth. But TJC announcement is a proper start.
The Jockey Club pronouncement went on to explain, quoting from their stats:
“As has been widely reported, the size of the North American foal crop has diminished significantly, from 37,499 in 2007 to the 20,500 estimated for 2020.
“In 2007, 37 stallions reported in excess of 140 mares bred each from a total of 3,865 stallions. By 2010, that number had declined to 24.
“Since then, the number has nearly doubled to 43 stallions reporting 140 or more mares bred from a population of stallions that now stands at less than one-half that of 2007.
“On the mare side, in 2007, 5,894 mares (9.5% of the total) were bred by stallions that covered more than 140 mares. By 2019, 7,415 mares (27% of the total) were covered by stallions with books of more than 140, a threefold increase.
“The combination of these changes has resulted in a substantial increase in the percentage of foals produced by a discreet segment of stallions — signaling a worrisome concentration of the gene pool.
“The board of stewards of The Jockey Club is considering a cap of 140 mares bred per individual stallion per calendar year in North America…”
Query from Bloodhorse: “Can you share any research done on the degree of inbreeding?”
TJC: “The stewards believe it is premature to consider releasing its research, but they may do so if they conclude it would materially benefit discussion of the proposed rule. However, some of the data include recent trends in large-book-size stallions that can be found online.”
Bloodhorse.com also reported “EARLY OPINIONS MIXED ON TJC PROPOSAL TO LIMIT BOOK SIZE”
Breeders responded thusly:”We would like to see the data. I think there is no question that there is an economic factor here. Is it about the gene pool or about competition?
“As a significant player in the stallion market, it would have been nice if this had been brought to us. It has never been discussed with us,” said one leading breeder.
Said another: “[We] support the phased-in approach to be fair to farms that have already bought new stallions” [explaining] “he couldn’t commit 100% to the proposal without seeing the details.” He added “there is always concern about unanticipated consequences.
BH: “Are you concerned about challenges regarding restraint of trade?”
TJC: “The short answer is no. We are neither concerned about nor see any basis for such a challenge. This proposal is aimed at the welfare and integrity of the Thoroughbred breed, which has been TJC’s primary mission for 125 years. The diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool is an important factor in the health and characteristics of succeeding generations of Thoroughbred horses, and that diversity has been declining at an accelerated rate. The purpose of the proposed rule is to preserve the Thoroughbred horse, without which there would be no Thoroughbred industry.
The HRI report continued: “Cornell patented a simple DNA test for WFFS in 2011. In March 2018, research at the University of California Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory identified a low carrier frequency of the WFFS mutation in Thoroughbreds, and appropriately communicated its findings to The Jockey Club.”
[Explained Dr. Winand]: “In reality, there was enough evidence that this was [an] inherited [trait] a year ago to warrant [the] addition of testing to the necropsy protocol that would have shown whether or not [equine deaths at Santa Anita] was caused by the WFFS mutation.
“[The Jockey Club has] had every opportunity to educate themselves and haven’t bothered, and there is no mention of any strategy to deal with it in the white paper (The Jockey Club’s recent white paper on its vison for 2050).”
TJC President Jim Gagliano and Executive Director Matt Iuliano said they were unaware of any notification and that it is something not routinely tested for, though Iuliano admitted to seeing a reference to it on the UC Davis VGL website. “We have no authority over the necropsy program,” said Iuliano.
Subsequent to the previous statement, Iuliano later recalled that his memory was incorrect and that he did receive notification from UC Davis as per contract. A test to identify WFFS has been available since May 2018 at the UC Davis VGL at a reasonable cost of $40.
In the March 26 HRI report, “Bleeders: It’s All in the Families” it was noted that a root cause “goes back to the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed imported to England from the Middle-East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729), also from the desert Arabians that preceded them.
“Bartlet’s Childers, nicknamed Bleeding Childers, was one of the earliest champion sires of the breed. A descendent of the Darley Arabian, he sired Squirt, who begat Maske, the sire of the great Eclipse, the dominant sire line of today’s Thoroughbreds. He has a presence in the male-line of about 95% of the breed. He has also sired several foundation mares.
“What was not known before and has been discovered by Winand in research since 2011 is that it only takes one copy to be present for the horse to exhibit signs of what seems to be a recessive defect, however, WFFS appears to be an unusual dominant mutation. The weak foal phenotype mimics a recessive but there are for the most part sub-clinical abnormalities in horses with one mutant gene copy…
“…Significantly, breeding horses with this genetic defect is a death sentence. When combined with bisphosphonates, the horses’ whose bones are exposed to stress are ready to implode at any time.
“I think you have to see what the injuries have in common and what the injuries tell you [to examine], said Dr. Larry Bramlage, renowned veterinary orthopedic surgeon. “We now have that information to make those determinations’.”
Read full story here: www.horseraceinsider.com/bleeders-its-all-in-the-families
The sport has been under siege since 30 horses suffered catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita this past winter and the sport held its collective breath through the 2019 Triple Crown series. It dodged a major bullet when the Kentucky Derby headstretch incident resulted “only” in disqualification, not disaster.
When Del Mar concluded its recent summer meet, it was deemed an unqualified success because no horse suffered a catastrophic racing injury throughout the entire session.
Much of that was the result of protocols put in place at Santa Anita in response to the tragedies suffered there. Remaining credit goes to California authorities that formed an expert panel of disparate stakeholders to insist new protocols were followed to the letter.
By comparison, four horses died from injuries suffered during Saratoga’s almost eight-week long 2019 race meet, which had 3,154 starters in 403 races. While the only acceptable but highly unattainable number of equine deaths is zero, the NYRA figure is well below the national average and represents significant progress in the area of safety.
The Thoroughbred industry is highly fractured, aligned by organization, with each group protecting its share of the spoils, so it is extremely encouraging to see TJC engage in a plan that will benefit the entire industry by doing what is best for the breed.
Horse Race Insider is pleased to be tangentially involved in this process. As lovers of the Thoroughbred, we should all share the same goal.