Anyone who’s watched a Shetland Grand National knows they love a good gallop.

But now scientists have traced the source of Sea The Stars, Northern Dancer, Nijinsky and the rest’s racing abilities back 300 years to… a freakily fast Shetland mare.

Dr Emmeline Hill of University College Dublin – whose grandmother Charmian owned National Hunt’s most successful mare, Dawn Run – and Dr Mim Bower of Cambridge University studied the genetic make-up of the modern Flat racehorse.

They found that the speed gene entered bloodlines when the Darley and Godolphin Arabians and Byerley Turk were bred with British natives – mainly Shetlands.

And they have pinned down the original gene variant – C-type myostatin – to a single British mare, living 300 years ago.

As Shetlands have the highest frequency of this gene, it’s odds-on a Shetland was the original speed freak.

Their findings were published this week in the UK scientific journal Nature Communications.

This news story was first published in the current issue of H&H (2 February 2012)