Cutting Edge: Racehorse genetics, featuring Dr. Emmeline Hill
Horseracing is an industry based entirely on the bloodlines of just 28 original thoroughbreds.
With an estimated 35% of a racehorse’s performance based on genetics and Ireland one of the top 5 breeders worldwide, all these numbers all mean just one thing: producing championship racers is near and dear to the heart of Ireland.
Emmeline Hill, a geneticist hailing from a Wexford farming family involved in breeding and racing horses, is trying to find out if what separates winners and losers is their genes.
Hill intends to apply for the first time the same rigor to the study of the thoroughbred genome that has been applied to livestock species, resulting in spectacular transformation of those breeds.
"The main focus is to understand the genes that contribute to athletic ability in the thoroughbred," she says. "We're selecting candidate genes that we know have an association with health-and-fitness-related traits in humans."
Hill is trying to establish whether there are any significant differences between the DNA of top-class elite animals and those that have never won a race by seeing if there are any molecular differences in the DNA which can be exploited to enhance and complement conventional breeding.
Only a handful of scientists around the world are engaged in similar projects.
"Most people in horse genomics are trying to understand disease and health-related things," she says. In the horse world, as in other industries, technology is swiftly changing.
"I think owners, breeders and trainers here are beginning to understand that the way to maintain Ireland's competitiveness is to embrace novel biotechnologies.”
With industry support, Hill’s programme will establish a world-class equine genomics research unit to advance fundamental knowledge of the species and will be crucial to maintaining Ireland’s outstanding global reputation of thoroughbred breeding.
“It's really important to be able to put the science into a context for the person who is most likely to benefit from it. I see that as one of my roles," she said.
"At one stage I wanted to be a vet, but I'm too squeamish," says Hill. Instead she went to study science at Trinity College in Dublin, where she opted to specialise in genetics.
"I remember my father saying to me that there were few, if any, horse geneticists and that it might be a possible niche to get into. That caught my interest, the idea of doing something different."It’s not surprising that Hill was enamoured with the idea of doing something a bit different. After all, she comes from stubborn stock herself. Her grandmother, Charmian Hill, was the first female jockey to ride against men under the rules of racing and also the owner of the famous thoroughbred Dawn Run.