By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006
A Texas company said yesterday that it had cloned two champion cutting horses for $150,000 apiece, had established multiple clone pregnancies and would create as many as 30 more cloned horses over the next year, signaling the arrival of a commercial horse-cloning industry in the United States.
The plans by ViaGen Inc. of Austin represent by far the most ambitious effort yet to turn horse cloning into a paying business. There's little doubt that ViaGen, with one of the world's top cloning scientists in its stable, can pull off the necessary laboratory work, and not a single government rule or regulation stands in the way.
But it remains to be seen how far the U.S. horse industry will go in embracing the technique that produced Dolly the sheep a decade ago and has since come to symbolize many people's fears about modern genetic science. While cloning is being welcomed by those who ride and breed cutting horses, a sport with blue-collar origins on the ranches of the American West, the people guarding the purity of elite horse racing in the United States have decided to prohibit clones.
"Would it be fun to watch Muhammad Ali box Muhammad Ali? Would it be fun to watch 10 Michael Jordans out on the basketball floor?" said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm, one of the leading farms in Kentucky breeding Thoroughbred racehorses. "What we do is part business and part fun, and it's part science and part art. If it becomes pure business and pure science, I don't want to play anymore."
It's clear that a lot of people in the horse industry agree with him. The American Quarter Horse Association, which safeguards that breed by issuing papers on the animals, has prohibited registration of any clone.
So has the Jockey Club, the association that registers the Thoroughbreds, such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew, that race for the Triple Crown and other premier events. In fact, the Jockey Club has prohibited not just cloning but any form of artificial reproduction. In the racing world, owners and breeders are clinging tenaciously to the idea that creation of a baby horse, a foal, ought to involve a stallion having sex with a mare.
But a different attitude seems to be taking hold in the most democratic of the equine disciplines, cutting, which grew out of the twice-yearly cattle roundups in the West that would bring together thousands of beef cows. To separate one rancher's animals from another's, cowboys needed compact, athletic horses with good instincts for pulling a cow out and blocking its attempt to rejoin the herd. The ranch hands would take any cutting horse, purebred or not, that could do the job.
Still, it probably didn't occur to those cowboys of old to try cutting cattle with a cloned horse.
It hadn't occurred to Lindy Burch, either, until recently. The Weatherford, Tex., woman is one of the nation's most accomplished riders and breeders of cutting horses, and owner of a valuable cutting champion called Bet Yer Blue Boons, a mare with health problems that have limited her ability to reproduce.
Burch was shocked when some fellows she knew called up and told her about a company with plans to clone horses. "I thought, 'Gosh, I have to try it,'" she said. "There's a lot of really nice horses, but the great ones are few and far between."
Now two mares are pregnant with Bet's clones. They're among 15 clones established in ViaGen's laboratories that are coming to term in surrogate mares on a farm in Oklahoma. Two clones already have been born. The first, born Feb. 19, is a clone of Royal Blue Boon, an aging champion whose offspring -- Bet Yer Blue Boons is one -- have earned millions in prize money on the cutting-horse circuit. That makes her, in the view of Quarter Horse News, "the greatest producing mare in the history of the sport."
They are not the first cloned horses born in the United States, nor even the first created for money. Since the world's first horse clone was born in Italy in 2003, a handful have been created by academic laboratories in this country.
But ViaGen, with financial backing from Arizona billionaire John Sperling and rights to the important patents in the field, is by far the best-financed company offering cloning services. Its laboratory is run by Irina Polejaeva, a leader of the scientific team that produced the world's first pig clones six years ago.
The company's main goal is to turn cloning into a routine tool of production agriculture, creating elite breeding stock for the cattle and hog industries. But a policy that would allow cloned animals or their offspring into the American food supply is stalled at the Food and Drug Administration, with consumer groups warning of a potential backlash.
So while the government figures out what to do about food, ViaGen has decided to go after a smaller market that needs no federal blessing -- horse cloning. At $150,000 for the first copy of a horse and $90,000 for the second copy, "it is a significant business opportunity," said Mark Walton, president of ViaGen.
Many of the associations that oversee various horse breeds are expected to follow the lead of the Jockey Club and the American Quarter Horse Association in prohibiting clones. That's likely to reduce the value of cloned animals, since neither they nor their offspring could ever be registered as purebred.
But Studbook Zangersheide, a small European association that controls a breed of jumping horses, has decided to register clones. And there's a lot of muttering in the horse world that anti-clone rules may be subject to legal attack as unfair restraints of trade. Nobody has sued yet.
The Humane Society of the United States yesterday condemned ViaGen's move, noting that several scientific panels have said cloning raises serious concerns about animal welfare. In some species, notably cattle, clones have died in the womb or just after birth with dire health problems, though not enough data are available yet to know if that will be true in horses.
"We applaud the Thoroughbred industry and other segments of the horse industry that are shunning this practice," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society, in Washington. "The cloning advocates and practitioners are thinking of horses as a commodity. Those on my side of the fence think of horses as individual creatures who deserve respect and humane treatment."