Genomic study of Medina Spirit’s death will be “slow and methodical”

Medina Spirit, ridden by John Velazquez, wins the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1. Medina Spirit died suddenly at Santa Anita on December 6, and researchers are looking to determine whether he had specific genetic factors putting him at risk for sudden cardiac death. © Alex Evers/CSM via Zuma Press Wire, Cal Sport Media via AP Images/University of Minnesota

University of Minnesota researchers will assist in investigating the death of famed Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, who collapsed and died on Monday at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California, of a suspected cardiac event.

The horse’s necropsy — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — will be conducted at the University of California, Davis. But samples of hair, blood, and heart tissue are en route to Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s (CVM) Equine Genetics and Genomics Laboratory, where scientists studying cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in racehorses will apply their expertise to the overall picture of the three -year old colt’s death.

The world-renowned lab has the largest publicly available catalog of equine genetic variation.

Unlike the breakneck pace for which he was famous in life, the study of Medina Spirit’s death will be slow and methodical. California racing authorities have said there is no timetable for necropsy results but that it could take months. CVM researchers will release the results of their analysis to the California Horse Racing Board separately, and likely much later. Ultimately, to buttress the necropsy, the researchers hope to determine whether Medina Spirit had specific genetic factors putting him at risk for sudden cardiac death.

The CVM scientists, led by Assistant Professor Sian Durward-Akhurst and Professor Molly McCue, will also incorporate the Medina Spirit samples into an ongoing research project seeking to understand genetic and other risk factors for sudden cardiac death in racehorses.

Molly McCue
Molly McCue
Sian Durward Akhurst

The researchers’ goal is to identify horses at risk for sudden cardiac death — and to put tools into the hands of racetrack veterinarians that will allow them to identify those horses in time to scratch them from a race — in order to prevent future such tragedies.

Those tools include an at-rest electrocardiogram (ECG) combined with artificial intelligence to identify horses likely to develop irregular heartbeats during a race — even if their resting ECG looks normal.

“Medina Spirit’s death is devastating, and sadly, such deaths occur all too frequently,” McCue said. “Our hope is to find ways to pinpoint horses at risk so we can intervene before they lose their lives. In addition to helping equine athletes, this research may also provide answers for sudden cardiac death in young human athletes.”

McCue’s lab has been studying horse genetic disease for nearly two decades. Durward-Akhurst and McCue have been working on sudden cardiac death in racehorses since 2015, when Durward-Akhurst was a PhD student, including creating with their collaborators the largest publicly available comprehensive catalog of equine genetic variation.

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