May 20, 2005
Cloning May Extend Horses’ Bloodline
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- After winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Funny Cide should be making multimillionaires of his owners in stud fees alone.
After all, the colt Smarty Jones was sold for $39 million shortly after his Derby and Preakness victories last year and now fetches $100,000 for every offspring he fathers. Similar riches await the owner of this year's Derby winner Giacomo if he can capture the Preakness on Saturday.
Funny Cide, unfortunately, was castrated shortly after birth, so breeding the gelding is impossible. There is, however, an intriguing - if still remote - possibility of extending Funny Cide's dead-end bloodline: through cloning.
"Obviously, it was a mistake that he was gelded in the first place," said Funny Cide co-owner Jon Constance, an optician in Sacketts Harbor, N.Y. "If there's a way to rectify that mistake, why wouldn't we look into it?"
Constance said he and his nine co-owners, most of them high school buddies who paid a combined $75,000 for Funny Cide, have received "very preliminary inquiries" into cloning the champion, whose career earnings top $3 million.
But The Jockey Club, thoroughbred racing's governing body in North America, keeps an extremely tight rein on breeding practices. Only natural breeding methods are allowed and club rules explicitly prohibit not only cloning but artificial insemination of any kind.
"We are trying to ensure the integrity of the breed," said Bob Curran, a spokesman for The Jockey Club, which monitors some 35,000 births a year. The 111-year-old institution is also bent on preserving the sport's competitive traditions.
Since 2001, The Jockey Club has required that horse breeders submit DNA proof that each foal was bred naturally. Such DNA testing could easily uncover a clone, because it would be an exact duplication of a single horse rather than a mixture from two parents.
Last month, Texas A&M University announced it had created the first cloned horse in the United States. The colt, dubbed Paris Texas, is the world's third successfully cloned horse. Each of those efforts used hundreds of eggs to yield a single foal, since the kinds of techniques researchers developed years ago for other species are still being figured out for horses.
Texas A&M researcher Katrin Hinrichs and colleagues found success by tricking the cloned embryo to begin growing as if it were fertilized. She said she has "a couple" of mares now pregnant with new clones, and that her lab is becoming ever more efficient at the process.
Hinrichs doesn't expect thoroughbred racing to soon embrace cloning, but believes the technology could help solve mysterious fertility problems such as the one that plagues the champion thoroughbred Cigar, who won a record $9.9 million during his career. Cigar retired to stud in 1997 and should have fetched $75,000 per foal fathered, but instead shot blanks. His owners had the foresight to take out a $25 million insurance policy protecting against infertility, but Cigar's bloodline is done.
A few biotechnology companies are already soliciting high-end customers to clone beloved polo ponies, Olympic jumpers and other professional horses not barred from competition because of cloning.
"The thoroughbreds will certainly be the last ones," said Eric Palmer, whose Paris company Cryozootech has had a hand in all three horse clonings, including the birth this year of Pieraz-Cryozootech, a clone of an endurance racer.
"Our business plan does not include them, although I feel that it is worth preserving cells of great champions for the future," Palmer explained in an e-mail interview. "Can anyone say that it is bad to preserve genes that might disappear in the future?"
Palmer said his company has "banked" DNA in freezers from 30 horses.
In San Diego, a small startup called Geneticas Life Sciences said it will begin to sell horse cloning services next year and expects to charge between $150,000 and $200,000 each.
Genetic Savings and Clone, a Sausalito-based company famed for cloning pet cats, tantalized Funny Cide's owners briefly with an offer to clone the gelding for $100,000, according to Jack Knowlton, a co-owner of the horse. The company declined comment but Knowlton said Funny Cide's owners turned down the offer, citing the racing industry's intransigence on cloning.
"Can you imagine the breeding industry, the blue bloods down there in Kentucky allowing that to happen?" Knowlton said. "No way."
Indeed, prestigious Kentucky breeders say there is no room for cloning - or any other genetic engineering technology - in their business.
"Part of the intrigue, part of what makes horse racing so appealing is the challenge and the art of breeding a better animal," said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. , which breeds Smarty Jones and a stable of other blue chip runners.
"It will become less appealing if it comes down to which owners and breeders can hire the best scientists," Rosenberg said. "Do we really want races that pit 10 Secretariats against each other?"
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