Santa Anita Park, in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, is the racetrack where a bay-colored horse named Seabiscuit became a national hero some 80 years ago. Today, about 14,000 people still show up on a typical racing day to watch the thoroughbreds. Punters wagered more than $660 million here last year. Even on a Thursday afternoon, the park, nicknamed the Great Race Place, is bustling.
The steady parade of debutantes in towering hats offers a reminder that horse racing remains a bit outside of time, a world unto itself. Tradition and lineage are of tremendous value. The multibillion-dollar market for racehorse breeding is strictly controlled, especially in the U.S., where racing organizations adhere closely to rules that haven’t changed much since Seabiscuit’s day. The American Quarter Horse Association, the U.S. Trotting Association, and the Jockey Club are among the groups that have banned even artificial insemination in the breeding process. You can guess how they feel about cloning.
“I don’t see this breed registry doing it,” says Jockey Club spokesman Bob Curran Jr. “Can that clone possibly be better than the original? It’s unlikely.” In some quarters, however, the old guard has less say in the matter.
The first cloned horse was born in 2003, and a small group of companies is now cranking them out. Clones have already flooded the world of polo, where multiple copies of a champion often battle on the same field. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association lets the genetic duplicates compete in barrel racing and donkey racing events. And the International Equestrian Federation, the global governing body for equestrian sports, has sanctioned clones for Olympic events. Until recently, it didn’t even require owners to disclose that little detail. “We don’t see it as relevant,” says federation veterinary director Goran Akerstrom.
So far, the big winner in the great clone race has been Alan Meeker, chief executive officer of Crestview Genetics. Since 2010 the 52-year-old Texas oil heir has created close to 100 horse clones valued at $500,000 to $800,000 each, depending on how long the company’s raised them. The clones have sired more than 375 foals, colts, and fillies priced at $50,000 to $250,000. Crestview, started in 2009 with about $20 million from Meeker and Argentine Adolfo Cambiaso, the world’s leading polo star, splits its 45 staffers between Texas and the polo hub of Buenos Aires. Meeker says the company is profitable, is worth about $75 million, and has settled the debate between nature and nurture: “To say that you can get the same DNA and you can’t get the same results, we’ve debunked that completely.”
Until recently, Crestview licensed its cloning technique, the one that yielded Dolly the sheep back in 1996, from ViaGen LC, which does a brisk business cloning livestock and pets. That meant harvesting ovaries from slaughterhouse horses, injecting the desired DNA, then implanting the fertilized embryos in surrogate mothers, typically trying several times to produce one clone.
In late 2015, Crestview worked out its own way to remove embryos from a living horse and quickly implant them in another. Meeker says that gives the company a 90 percent chance the surrogate mother’s system will accept the clone embryo and produce a healthy clone. Last October, Cambiaso won a polo match riding a succession of six clones of his late champion, Cuartetera. Now that Crestview has cloned more than two dozen Cuarteteras, such feats are starting to become routine.
Unlike with polo horses, uniform excellence isn’t the ideal for racehorses, says Ernie Bailey, a genetics professor at the University of Kentucky. The old-school breeders try to mate speedsters with mares they think will produce even faster horses. “Let that beautiful alchemy of Mother Nature see if you get a winner,” says author Laura Hillenbrand. “I don’t want another Seabiscuit. He’s enough.” Besides, even genetic twins can be noticeably different depending on which genes happen to be “expressed,” meaning switched on, says Doug Antczak, a veterinary scientist at Cornell University.
Meeker says his team is working on decoding the mysteries of gene expression and on extrapolating its work with horses to advance human stem cell research. He’s making himself the first test subject for a possible genetic cure for Type 1 diabetes, which he’s aiming to make available to the public for $10 million per patient at a clinic in the Bahamas by the end of next year. What do the old-timers back at Santa Anita Park think about his work with horses? In the tunnel between races, a mustachioed jockey looks up from texting and answers questions about horse clones by spitting in the dirt. His trainer laughs. But the question is serious.
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