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Genetic testing a small piece of O’Brien’s Melbourne Cup success

In a game where narrow margins can be career-defining and fortunes can be won and lost, every little advantage that can be obtained makes a difference.

Danny O’Brien, who on Tuesday achieved the ultimate when his lightlyraced stayer Vow And Declare (Declaration Of War) fought off a horde of internationals to win the Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m), has invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art private training property at Barwon Heads near Geelong.

It is in close proximity to 13th Beach, an important element of O’Brien’s regime, while he also maintains a strong presence in the metropolitan area with 38 boxes at Flemington.

O’Brien also uses science, specifically genetic testing, to help determine the likely optimum distance range for his horses and modifies their training if required as a result.

It is another small piece of the puzzle in trying to unlock the potential of his racehorses by   Matt Harrington, O’Brien Racing’s general manager, who yesterday revealed that speed gene and distance plus tests had helped shape the racing career of Vow And Declare and former stable stars, Cox Plate (Gr 1, 2040m) winner Shamus Award (Snitzel), multiple Group-winning mare Miss Rose De Lago (Encosta De Lago) and Newmarket Handicap (Gr 1, 1200m) winner Shamexpress (O’Reilly).

“It doesn’t tell you if they are a good or bad horse but it tells you this is their optimum distance range,” Harrington told ANZ Bloodstock News.

“For example, Shamexpress was by O’Reilly out of a Volksraad mare called Volkrose. We had the older brother called Too Big To Cry and he needed 4000 metres to get warm, but Shamexpress was a 1200-metre horse who could get 1300 or 1400 metres.

“That was because the genes he got off his mum and dad were different to the ones his brother got and that is why we do the testing, because full-brothers can be very different.”

O’Brien has the gene testing undertaken on the majority of the horses in his stable. The tests, conducted in Ireland by Plusvital, cost from $395 each.

It was the results of the test that convinced O’Brien to run Shamus Award, then a nine-start maiden, in the 2013 Cox Plate.

“The reason we are so big on it is because of Shamus Award after the testing said he would get 2000 metres,” Harrington said. 

“Everyone was potting us saying he won’t run the Cox Plate trip out because he is a Snitzel. He obviously just got the 2000 metres, but he did get it.

“It was the same with Shamexpress. He was on a Caulfield Guineas and possible Derby path, but we got his results back after he failed in the Golden Rose and the (Guineas) Prelude over 1400 metres. 

“The tests said he was an out-and-out sprinter, so we freshened him up and he came out and ran third at 100-1 in the Coolmore and he won the Newmarket in the autumn as a three-year-old.”

Lycurgus, the elder half-brother to Vow And Declare and the first foal out of five-time winner up to 1400 metres in Geblitzt (Testa Rossa), is by O’Brien’s Group 1-winning sprinter Star Witness (Starcraft).

Convention suggests Lycurgus was bred to be a sprinter, but the Plusvital speed gene test indicated otherwise. O’Brien adhered to the science and won the MRC Galilee Series Final Handicap (Listed, 2400m) at Caulfield in 2017.

The testing also led to O’Brien starting Vow And Declare’s career off over 1500 metres at Cranbourne in August last year before quickly progressing to 2381 metres at Warrnambool on just his fourth start. 

“Then he went back to 1800 metres (in the Listed Connoisseur Stakes), but that was only because we missed the Derby. He was a first emergency and he didn’t get a run,” he said. 

“Dan said he’s fit and well, let’s run him in the 1800 metres and he won. When you can win in that sort of class over shorter (than your optimum) trip, you know you have got a horse who is pretty good.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien will be attempting to win his second Group 1 feature of the week, with Miami Bound (Reliable Man) the favourite for today’s VRC Oaks (Gr 1, 2500m).

She is a daughter of 2017 VRC Oaks winner Arapaho Miss (Danehill Dancer) and is by Westbury Stud Group 1-winning stallion Reliable Man (Dalakhani) who is developing a reputation as a sire of middle distance and staying horses.

Harrington said Miami Bound’s genetic profile backs up what her pedigree suggests she should be: that she is an Oaks-style filly. 

“You buy them thinking you know the type and then you test them to find out,” he said.

“Sometimes you get a surprise and think, ‘that’s interesting’ and other times you get it pretty close. But once you get the results you can then train the horse accordingly.

“Miami Bound’s family has done it and profiles exactly like you think she would. The 2500 metres looks like it is going to be her best distance and hopefully she proves it.”

Harrington added: “At the end of the day, as much information as you can gather helps you make educated decisions. You still have got to be able to look at the horse and know what is going on with them… but it is another piece of information that can potentially help you to make a decision earlier.”

What is a speed gene test?

The results of the Speed Gene Test will help trainers to:

  • Determine optimum race distance with over 90 per cent accuracy
  • Inform expectations on two-year-old performance
  • Increase strike-rates and earnings though optimised training and race decisions
  • The Speed Gene Test was launched by Equinome in 2010 and since then has grown to be the most firmlyestablished genetic test for Thoroughbred horses around the globe. This test examines changes in the DNA within the “Myostatin” gene, which is responsible for muscle development and muscle fibre type.


The Speed Gene test then categorises horses into three distinctive types:

  • C:C Sprint/Mile Types
  • C:T Middle Distance Types
  • T:T Staying Types


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