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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
DNA study of 'greatest racehorse'
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter, Dublin

Eclipse statue at the RVC (RVC)
In the end, rival owners simply wouldn't put their horses up against Eclipse
Eclipse, the stallion described as the greatest racehorse of all time, is to have his DNA studied by scientists.

The team, from the Royal Veterinary College and Cambridge University, hope to get an insight into what made him such a great champion.

Eclipse was never beaten when he ran from 1769-1770 and was retired largely because of the lack of competition.

It was his prowess on the track that gave rise to the famous phrase, "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere".

"He was the greatest in history and to get a look at his genetic material will be pretty amazing," said Professor Matthew Binns, a equine genetics expert from the RVC, who is part of the project.

"He won 18 races and usually by 10 or 20 furlongs. You have to remember that races were much longer in those days," he told the BBC News website.

Professor Binns and other equine researchers have been detailing their work at the British Association's Festival of Science, which this year is being held in Dubin, Ireland.

Narrow line

Eclipse is one of several "kings of the turf" from the more distant past who will have their "life codes" investigated. Others include the 1867 Derby winner, Hermit; and the late 19th Century stallion St Simon, who sired 10 horses that between them won 17 classic races.

Their remains and those of other horses in the project have been kept in collections and by museums. Eclipse himself had his whole skeleton preserved after his death, so important was he considered to our understanding of equine physiology.

But getting at the DNA will be a tricky business because the molecule degrades quickly over time. Scientists at Cambridge's McDonald Institute will have to use sensitive techniques recently developed to retrieve DNA from ancient human remains.

"Dr Mim Bower will lead this work," said Professor Binns. "Our preferred material is a tooth because the DNA is better protected but we'll also be tackling long bones and hooves.

"The Victorians were very keen on turning them into ink wells and candlesticks and there are some of these around from famous old horses."

The research will give insights into the origins of the world's thoroughbred racing stock. Research conducted at Trinity College Dublin has already shown that today's racehorses can trace their line to a very small group of animals imported from the Near East and North Africa in the early 1700s.

"The effective number of founders is only about 28," said Patrick Cunningham, a professor of animal genetics at Trinity. "They contribute pretty well all the genes seen in today's population, and the top 10 contribute about 80% of the genes."

Future champions

The RVC-Cambridge work will add further detail to this story and it should also show up which genetic traits have come through the 30 or so generations since the foundation of the stock.

One set of remains the project would dearly like to study are those of Godolphin Arabian. The horse, originally from the Yemen, was one of the founding 28 and it is buried in a country park in the Gog Magog hills just south-east of Cambridge.

Discussions are ongoing with the park's owners to see if the animal's skeleton can be exhumed so that samples can be taken.

Genetics is playing an ever bigger role in equine science as researchers try to understand what goes into making a great champion, and what makes other horses more susceptible to disease or more likely to break down in training.

"We're using new technologies called microarray, or gene-chip, technologies that have revolutionised biological science in the last five years," explained Dr Emmeline Hill, from University College Dublin.

"These are now being adapted for the horse and they allow us to look at thousands of genes in parallel, to understand gene expression and to look at molecular networks and interactions in muscle cells that are under pressure at the end of a race."

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