October 6, 2010 / 6:40 AM / 8 years ago

English racehorses are more European than Arabian: study

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - England’s prized Thoroughbred racehorses, which fueled Britons’ love of horse racing and betting, were long thought to have Middle East origins but an international study shows they owed more to European stock.

British, Irish and Australian researchers said the paternal origins of Thoroughbred racehorses traced back to a handful of Middle Eastern stallions imported during the 17th century.

But few details of the foundation mares were recorded which had led to intense speculation over the founding mothers of English Thoroughbreds, a valued horse breed.

Researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University, the University of South Australia, University College Dublin, and the Royal Veterinary College in London said there was no evidence to support Arab maternal origins as some records suggest or a significant importation of Oriental mares.

“Instead, we show that Thoroughbred foundation mares had a cosmopolitan European heritage with a far greater contribution from British and Irish Native mares than previously recognized,” the researchers wrote in a report published in the journal “Biology Letters.”

To trace the maternal roots of the Thoroughbred, the researchers examined mitochondrial DNA — DNA inherited from the mother — from about 200 Thoroughbreds and 80 British native horses.

Their analysis showed the British racehorse received about 61 percent of its genetic makeup from British and Irish native horses such as Connemara ponies from Ireland and Irish Draught horses.

Only about 31 percent of their genes came from Oriental horses and 8 percent from Arab horses.

“The contribution from British and Irish Native horses is close to twice that of Oriental horses,” said the researchers, explaining Oriental referred to Middle East and western Asian breeds including Arab, Akhla-Teke, Barb and Caspian.

They said Thoroughbred foundation mares most likely represented a cross-section of female bloodstock available at each stud participating in the foundation of the breed.

“While influential Thoroughbred breeders may still claim Thoroughbreds as purely Oriental (specifically Arab), our results argue strongly against this claim,” they concluded.

Reporting by Elaine Lies, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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