A Whiter Shade of Pale

It seems there’s something in the water in KZN at the moment. Mike and Tanya McHardy of Rathmor Stud were presented with an Equus award for Exceptional International Achievement for their wonderful filly, Gypsy’s Warning. And it seems they’ve got another superstar on their hands!

On 13 September 2011, just a little before midnight, the big bay Rakeen mare Perakeen went into labour. Tanya McHardy, assistant manager Thulani Mazibuko and night watchman Derrick were on hand to assist. Everything appeared to go smoothly, but what Perakeen delivered has turned out to be anything but ordinary.

Special Delivery

Perakeen produced a Kahal colt foal, pure white in colour, with chestnut ears. Mike tells me they were shocked at first. Perakeen is one of their prized mares and has not had the best of luck in the breeding shed, so this unusual offering took them by surprise. However, they are now delighted with their special foal. Mike says that their new addition compares favourably with the rest of the crop, shows a good temperament, is a good size, and appears of good health and appetite. He received a few odd looks from the rest of the herd when he was first turned out, but now seems to be accepted as one of the group.

Colour Genes

The ‘paint’ colours are not all that well understood, but several genes that dictate the distribution of white on a horse’s body have been mapped. Every star, blaze, snip, sock, etc is caused by a minimally expressed paint gene. For example, the gene called ‘Sabino’ causes unusually large white faces (with the white often extending over the nose and chin) and this is often combined with tall white socks extending in uneven points over the hocks.

However, colour connoisseurs will wax lyrical about the subtle differences. So how does one tell your Frame Overo from your Tobiano and your true Sabino from your garden variety Sabino characteristics? Well, that really depends on how much of a purist you are.

Coats of Many Colours

The genetics behind white markings in horses is pretty complex and you need to know your genotypes from your phenotypes. For example, horses with identical genotypes may not always exhibit as identical phenotypes, depending on the amount of visible patterning. And to confuse matters further, the amount of white expressed on a horse’s coat, may not only depend on the known white spotting genes. Research seems to suggest that white spotting genes may also interact with each other in a cumulative fashion, so two apparently solid-coloured parents with different genes for white markings may produce a foal either expressing both, or more white than either parent.

In the strictest sense of the word, to be a true Sabino, any white pattern should be produced by the Sabino 1 (SB1) gene and can be genetically tested for. However, the term Sabino is used to describe a group of white spotting patterns in horses and can be generally applied to cover a wide variety of irregular coat markings including roaning at the edges of white markings, belly spots, irregular face markings (particularly when they extend past the eyes or onto the chin), white above the knees or hocks and ‘splashes’ anywhere on the body, but particularly on the belly. It can also affect eye colour and Sabino’s may exhibit blue eyes.

The Tobiano colouring refers to white haired, pink-skinned patterns on a base coat colour (eg skewbald) and Overo refers white-over-dark body markings (which tend to be irregular, jagged splashes of colour). Overo also comes in a variety of combinations. Then you can also get a mix of colour traits and if you mix Tobiano and Overo, you get a Tovero (I told you it was complicated!).

At the most extreme end of the Sabino spectrum, if the SB1 gene is homozygous, it can produce a horse almost completely white in colour with either pink or only partially pigmented skin. So the rather special colt that arrived at Rathmor last week has chestnut ears and would therefore appear to be a Medicine Hat or War Bonnet Tovero.

Colour Combinations

Thoroughbreds can come in a lot of ‘non-standard’ colours such as paint (skewbald or piebald), cremello, palomino, buckskin, roan, etc. even though the local governing bodies may not necessarily register their colours as such.

While we are not used to seeing ‘non-standard’ coloured Thoroughbreds all that often, there are a lot more of them than one might realize (even though these would be entered onto the databases under more standard solid colour labels). It is theorized that the Sabino gene may be carried via the Northern Dancer and Galileo lines and there have been a host of horses expressing these characteristics.

Well Known Examples

Australian Apache Cat (Lion Cavern – Tennessee Blaze) enjoyed a fantastic sprint career from 2005-2009 including 43 starts, 19 wins (including 8 group 1 wins), 4 seconds and 7 thirds for lifetime earnings of $4,588,655. With his easily recognizable features and brilliant speed, he became one of Australia’s most popular horses.

More recently, a son of Tiznow called Tiz Chrome looked a very promising prospect for Bob Baffert, with serious designs on the Kentucky Derby, before suffering a career and sadly life ending injury in 2010.

In 2006, there was much media coverage when a horse called I Was Framed became the first Thoroughbred to be registered by Weatherbys as a coloured horse. Although he was unraced, his owner wanted to try and breed track stars from him and moved him to the UK.

I Was Framed stood at Rectory Farm for two seasons under the management of Martin Ward. Martin explained that the traditional breeders didn’t take to the stallion. He received little outside support and was eventually sold to France where he is now used as a Sport Horse stallion.

However, his two seasons in the UK did produce a number of coloured offspring – the first being a colt foal called Ben who was born on West Down stud in March 2007. Owners Paul and Sheena Halliwell were even luckier to get a second coloured colt shortly afterwards. I heard that one of the colts went into training, but unfortunately the stud has changed hands and the new owners could not tell me what happened to either of the horses after that.

A yearling filly called Painted Angel made history by becoming the first coloured Thoroughbred to be sold at Tattersalls in 2009. The chestnut frame overo was knocked down for 8,000 gns to Vincent O’Brien’s granddaughter, Tara Myerscough.

Locally we’ve also seen Princess Patches (by Galileo) currently in training in Joburg and a Western Winter colt called The Masterpiece appearing at Lammerskraal last year.

Looking Ahead

With lots of media interest already being generated and fans and naming suggestions streaming in via their Facebook page, it’s certain that Rathmor’s colt is destined to be special. Mike says they hope to put him on the National Sales, although with a queue of people already vying for the opportunity to purchase this rather unusual and special colt, it’s possible he may be snapped up well before then.

I must confess that I rather selfishly hope not. With a shortage of instantly recognizable track superstars, imagine the press and media opportunities we could generate with our South African ‘snow angel’. Particularly if he can run a bit. Nevermind Secretariat or Zenyatta – imagine the hype and interest one could generate with a real live racing Pegasus! He could be just the thing to capture the imagination and attract new fans to the track.

Yes, it is early days and it may be ambitious to hope that this colt may not only be blessed with unusual colouring, but unusual talent as well, but I’ve certainly got my fingers crossed!

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