USTA/Cornell “Iron Horse” study seeks 300 horses

Columbus, OH — The U.S. Trotting Association has partnered with Cornell’s Baker Institute in search of the “Iron Horse” of harness racing and the study is seeking up to 300 horses, including younger racehorses that will serve as project controls.

A new research grant from the Harry M. Zweig Memorial Fund is supporting a collaboration between the USTA and Dr. Doug Antczak’s laboratory at Cornell’s Baker Institute for Animal Health.

Other veterinary scientists from Cornell, the Universities of Illinois, Kentucky, and Minnesota, and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium will also participate. The team includes geneticists from the Horse Genome Project, veterinary clinical specialists, epidemiologists, and computational biologists.

The project focuses on Standardbred racehorses with long and successful careers — the so-called “Iron Horses” of harness racing.

“The aim of the project is to determine whether genetic or environmental factors are more important in durability and longevity of racing careers of Standardbred horses,” said Cornell’s Dr. Antczak. “The question is highly relevant because the answer may help reduce racing associated injuries and contribute to equine welfare in the harness racing industry. This would be good for the horse, good for the owners, and good for the harness racing industry.”

The first step in this study was to develop a list of horses that have raced for a minimum of five years. The USTA database was instrumental in this phase of the project, revealing more than 6,000 horses that meet this criterion of career longevity. About 75 percent of the horses are pacers, and the remainder, trotters. As expected, most of these 6,000 horses are geldings. Successful racing stallions and mares are usually retired early from competition and move on to second careers in the breeding shed.

The horses were then ranked by earnings or number of racing starts, and separated by gait.

Beginning in spring 2022, the equine researchers will be contacting trainers and owners to enroll selected horses in the study. The only biological tissue that is required for participation in the study is a small blood sample that will be used for DNA analysis.

The selected durable horses will be compared with an appropriate control group using the equine Single Nucleotide Polymorphism array, a molecular test that can identify genetic differences among individuals at 640,000 locations spread across the DNA sequence of the horse genome. Computer programs are used to analyze the large data sets produced in projects of this type.

The data will be evaluated in association with race records and other information about the horses contained in USTA databases. Subsequently, full DNA sequence will be obtained from a small number of “Iron Horses” with the goal of pinpointing regions of the genome that may be responsible for durability traits.

Do you think that you own or train an “Iron Horse?”

If so, contact Don Miller about enrolling your horse in the Cornell Standardbred Durability Project. Don can be reached by email ( or text (607.279.9941).

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