Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Success is in the genes for DU alum

For gamblers who think they know all they need to know about a horse they’re wagering on, University of Denver graduate Dustin Gilbert has a word of warning: Don’t bet on it.

Betting on the storied sport of horse racing has always been a gamble, but for savvy players who study a horse’s breeding by examining its family tree, that lineage is supposed to be guaranteed by careful recordkeeping, which traces an animal back to the first thoroughbreds brought to England hundreds of years ago.

Instead, Gilbert, a 2007 DU biology graduate, says his research shows that that record keeping hasn’t always been so careful, and those histories aren’t always accurate.

Gilbert spent three years in a DU lab working with biology Professor Phil Danielson studying the genetics of racehorses. He found that over the centuries, either by accident or on purpose, horses have been misidentified and shuffled into lineages where they don’t belong. That’s crucial in the high-dollar world of horse racing, where bettors believe they can spot a winner by studying the family tree.

And buyers spend big money on young horses based solely on their ancestry, the theory being that a horse from a long line of successful runners will run well. At an auction of 1-year-old horses last fall in Kentucky, the average price was more than $112,000. The highest-priced colt there went for $11.7 million — before it ever ran a race.

“If you’ve had just a few dishonest breeders over the years, they could throw a horse into the mix that’s not even close to the family he’s supposed to be in,” Gilbert says. “Looking at the DNA, I can tell you whether or not it’s been misclassified.”

Using known genetic markers, Gilbert says he can track individual bloodlines, knowing which horse should exhibit a particular combination of markers. A variation from the expected set of markers would tell a scientist that somewhere in the line, a horse’s ancestors might have been misidentified. Human error, unscrupulous breeders and a Civil War-era shuffle in horse breeding records leave plenty of room for error, Gilbert says.

He explains that horses were a critical strategic resource during the Civil War, used to move troops, ordinance and supplies. As both sides consumed resources, horses, like cannons, rifles and troops, were in high demand. As a result, horses were bred indiscriminately. In the rush, records were lost, thoroughbreds were pressed into service and mixed up with other horses, or horses were stolen or captured. To this day, Gilbert says, there remains a break in lineage in American horses starting with the Civil War.

Someday, Gilbert’s work could shake up the world of horseracing. If all horses were tested and classified by DNA, a breeder who paid a huge sum for the right to put a winning horse with an impressive lineage up for stud might see its value drop if errors are found on the family tree.

The final report, which will be offered to the Journal of Animal Genetics, will be only the second major research publication studying thoroughbred breeding and genetics at the minute level of DNA.

Gilbert, 22, leaves DU this summer to start veterinary school at Colorado State University. He plans to continue working on his DNA classification projects.


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