Forget Will Smith slapping Chris Rock live on stage at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday: the most astonishing thing I’ve seen in recent weeks was a nugget of information contained in a Darley stallion advertisement.
The operation has made public the Plusvital Speed Gene Test designation for its rangey middle-distance megastar Cracksman (pictured below), and he is – believe it or not – a C:C, the type most suited to running over five furlongs to a mile.
The Dalham Hall Stud resident must therefore have inherited from each of his parents a ‘C’ copy of their genetic marker, and it’s not difficult to see how that could have happened.
Cracksman’s sire Frankel is presumably a C:T, being by Galileo, who was widely known to be a T:T – the type most suited to stamina tests – out of Kind, a stakes-winning sprinter by Danehill. His dam Rhadegunda was, meanwhile, a Listed scorer over nine furlongs by one top sprinter in Pivotal and out of a mare by another, in Green Desert.
The revelation puts a new spin on the horse’s racecourse performances. Does it, for example, help explain how he came up just short in the Derby and the Irish equivalent? Does it mean he deserves extra credit for reeling in Salouen in the Coronation Cup on soft ground a year later, when it was a little disappointing that he made such heavy weather of it at the time?
It should also have significant repercussions for his stallion career, starting with his first two-year-olds being tested on the racecourse this year. As Darley stated in the advert: “It’s all about to happen quicker than you’d think.”
But how could Cracksman be so effective over middle distances when the Speed Gene Test suggested he would be better over shorter trips? I put the question to Professor Emmeline Hill, who discovered the speed gene in thoroughbreds with her colleagues at University College Dublin in 2010, and leads the research and development team at Plusvital.
“Our test was developed using a metric we refer to as ‘best race distance’, and the definition of that is the highest value of the highest grade of race won,” she said. “So if a horse has won multiple Group 1 races, then it’s the distance of the highest value of those races we go by. ‘Best race distance’ therefore means the horse’s optimum distance, not their only winning distance, and it’s important to clarify that.”
Cracksman’s ‘best race distance’, judged both by Plusvital’s measures and Racing Post Ratings, was plainly ten furlongs, the distance over which he won back-to-back renewals of the Champion Stakes by wide margins.
RPRs also show that the horse’s four best efforts came over ten furlongs (and an extra half-furlong in the case of the Prix Ganay), while his five next highest rated performances came over 12 furlongs.
“The optimum race distance for C:C horses is five to eight furlongs, with higher strike rates in five and six-furlong races, relative to C:T and T:T horses,” continued Hill. “We do see a small number of C:C horses winning at Group level over longer distances, but that doesn’t tend to be their optimum trip – in other words, they could perform better over shorter.
“The interesting thing, though, is that some of them are never given the opportunity of doing so. So those C:C horses that do go on and perform very well over longer trips are clearly exceptional horses.
“We did a study where we looked at the race records of 1,300 horses in Britain and Ireland, and found that among the C:C horses that ran as three-year-olds, 50 per cent never ran in a race over less than seven furlongs in their three-year-old career. That means half of the horses in the study weren’t being targeted at the race distances over which they’re consistently outperforming C:T and T:T horses.
“The other thing we found was that the C:C horses that had previously raced over five and six-furlong distances were less likely to have a start as an older horse in races greater than nine furlongs.”
Cracksman never competed over less than a mile, the distance over which he won his maiden at two, and never ran over less than ten furlongs at three and older, so he didn’t have the opportunity to show whether he might be effective over shorter trips, as his C:C speed gene designation now suggests he might have been.
It’s amusing, if entirely academic now, to speculate what he would have achieved if he had been tried over less than ten furlongs or even a mile again, although his owner-breeder Anthony Oppenheimer likely has few grumbles about a racing career that brought widespread acclaim and £2.8 million in earnings.
Hill went on to explain that Plusvital offers supplementary tests that can give more detailed information about a horse’s optimum trip.
“The Speed Gene Test is the most important contributor to distance, we’ve shown that in multiple studies, but there are other minor modifying genes and we capture those in our Distance Plus Test,” she said. “That test separates horses into long and short sub-groups of the Speed Gene Test, so we have C:C short and C:C long, C:T short and C:T long, and so on.
“So the C:C horses that do go on and win over those slightly longer distances than the mainframes tend to be C:C long and that’s because the Distance Plus Test looks at hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, which provide an enhanced level of information when you combine that information with the Speed Gene Test.
“We published results from a study that looked at the performance of more than 3,000 horses for the Distance Plus Test in the Equine Veterinary Journal in 2019. They found that distance aptitude is also determined by additional genes that involve other metabolic requirements and physiological responses, which are quite different for short-distance high-intensity exercise and the more aerobic requirements for longer-distance racing.
“The Distance Plus Test fine-tunes the Speed Gene Test, so C:C horses that run well over greater trips than the mainframe are likely C:C long – those that have a higher proportion of those longer-distance modifying genes.”
Hill doesn’t comment on individual cases in order to maintain client confidentiality, but it seems safe to assume that Cracksman is categorised as C:C long.
She did confirm, though, that there are no T:T horses in her dataset of Cracksman offspring owned by a wide range of different customers. There can’t be, of course, as the sire can only pass down a ‘C’ copy of his genetic marker.
As Cracksman’s offspring will only be C:Cs and C:Ts, and Hill’s research has shown that the Speed Gene test is “highly significantly” associated with precocity, there should be a good few early birds among their number.
Commenting on the relevance of genetic testing to breeding on a more general level, Hill said: “There are often surprises – horses that raced in a particular way and results from the breeding shed that are different from that, and it goes to show that you can’t tell the genetic make-up of a horse from its race record or looks.
“That’s why genetics is so powerful and valuable. It’s really important in breeding to know the genetic make-up of mares in the first instance, because that’s where most people have the opportunity to know, but when a stallion’s information is available too that is hugely beneficial.
“I’m delighted to see stallions now being promoted on the basis of their genetic tests in the northern hemisphere. Many farms in Australia, led by Widden Stud at first, have been advertising Speed Gene Test designations for stallions for years, and have seen a really positive response for doing so, both from mare owners making more informed mating decisions and for attracting the mares who’ll produce progeny of the required type.
“Australia has been leading the way in genetic testing for years, not just for breeding but racing too, and we now have six of the top ten trainers in Victoria using it to fine-tune their racing plans.”
Genetic testing might never replace the horseman’s expertise, experience and intuition in the role of breeding and rearing future athletes, but the additional information it provides can surely only improve decision-making processes.
With that in mind, the announcement of Cracksman’s surprise C:C speed gene designation should help inform running plans for his progeny and his future matings.