Small business column: Mike Shelly on genetic testing in horse racing

Kehlan Kirwan talks with Mike Shelly, chief executive of Plusvital, an Irish equine science company that focuses on horse supplements and genomics.

Jim Bolger is an advocate for genetic testing in racing.
Jim Bolger is an advocate for genetic testing in racing.

Explain to us what you do?

I suppose Plusvital would consider ourselves an Irish equine science company. First and foremost we’re Irish and very proud of that. When we go around the world it’s a great place to be. As an Irish company we have great standing in the racing regions around the world because we focus on horses.

We do a range of products and services for horses, primarily supplements now but also genetic products. We really believe if we focus on products that are based on science and good research it will benefit our clients.

Plusvital was setup in 1975, so we’ve been around for 40 years. We focused on equine supplements, but in 2015 we acquired a company called Equinome. Equinome has developed thoroughbred genetic testing service, most famously the speed gene test. Since then the combined companies have been growing well in all the regions.

Why take over Equinome?

You have to go back to 1975 to get the answer to that one.

The original founder of the company, Denis O’Brien, had an innovative idea that horses would require supplementation. The story goes that as he went around with his product, which was racing syrup, to all the trainers they pretty much all told him the horse supplementation wouldn’t take off.

By the time you fast forward 40 years later and supplementation is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the industry both on the racing side and the sports side. We were looking around and wondering how do we push the company on again in a way that would allow having that edge over the competition.

We figured out that supplements weren’t going to take us where we wanted to go fast enough. So we looked around and found Equinome. Equinome had been set up in 2009 by Dr Emmeline Hill from UCD and she had found ground-breaking research around the speed gene in thoroughbred horses. They developed tests that could show what the optimum race distance of flat horses was going to be.

It was similar to our story and we had started out. It was a brand new product on the market and they began to carve out a niche for themselves.

The initial feedback from people was that it was a novelty, it would ever catch on. They had just come out of their five-year startup cycle and so they too were looking at how they could push on and make the company bigger. It was a good fit for both companies. Now we don’t see ourselves as a supplement company, we see ourselves as an equine science company. We have some incredibly smart people here who are always looking for the connections between nutrition and genetics.

Isn’t this all about creating the one percent or the half percent difference between winning and losing?

That’s absolutely it, no different than in any sport. It’s all about finding the edge.

There was actually a study out recently by a university in the UK that talked about that idea of the percent. It measured a huge amount of races within the UK and Ireland and found the average difference between first and second was just 0.32%. That’s the difference between winning and coming second and that can have a huge effect on prestige, financial rewards, success for the trainer and success for the owner.

At the elite end of every sport what you’re trying to do is find that edge, no matter how minuscule, that is going to put you past the winning post first or help drive over the try line from inches away. That’s what makes the best trainers or the best teams. That they have been able to eke out every last drop of performance out of them. That is simply what we do. We can provide the key information or the key nutritional attributes which make the difference in a sport of tight margins. We have been successful in doing that so far.

Has acquiring Equinome allowed you to work closer with clients?

That’s exactly what it is. Jim Bolger, the racehorse trainer, was one of the shareholders in Equinome and continues to be an advocate for genetic testing in the industry. He talks about testing the horses when they are a couple of days old and at that stage he can already tell you what the optimum race distance of the horse is going to be.

Remember that’s all before he’s seen it run and or do anything like that. Previously what would have happened would have been guesswork based upon pedigree. You can test everything from the horse’s optimum race distance to its chances of making the race track.

Thirty percent of thoroughbred foals don’t even make it to the race track, so that’s an important thing to know.

This field of research is only going to get bigger, quicker and faster. We are best placed to take advantage of the changes in technology and how they reflect on the industry. It’s funny because you sit down and make five-year plans for your business, but technology and research are advancing so quickly that those plans become obsolete over the course of a year. To respond to that you have to constantly reassess what is changing and how we can make it work for us.

What is your business model in this quick-changing industry?

Well, there is two main revenue streams for us.

One is, of course, the supplements and getting them out to market. We have exclusive distribution deals in countries around the world. I just got a flight from the Middle East where I had a meeting with one.

We need people who speak the language and know the right people to talk to. The speed test is important as well.

Right now we are mainly dealing with thoroughbred horses, but there is an opportunity to open that up in the future to the veterinary industry as well.

The pace of change within the technology side of the industry means the costs of testing is always coming down. So, at some, we’ll have to start moving into different streams.

There is a whole other side to industry as well in sports horses too. I think that we’ll also be supplying information and data. We have a number of research programs running at the moment centred around health traits and if we deliver on them, we can be information suppliers as well. If we can tell trainers and owners that a certain horse is at risk of getting X, then they are going to ask what can be done about. It’s one thing to be able to supply data, it’s another thing entirely to bring a solution to them as well.


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