The topic of cloning has emerged as a hot-button issue in the horse racing world this year, due to the ongoing legal battle to admit clones into the American Quarter Horse Association registry.
At the time this was written, a West Texas U.S. District Court had ruled against the AQHA, requiring the breed organization to accept clones and allow them to participate in all AQHA-sanctioned events, including racing. The AQHA plans to appeal the ruling.
Meanwhile in Northern California, the great race mule Sarah Nelson drew national attention to the state’s county fair circuit over the summer when she squared off against her clone, Lil Sarah. Striking a blow for originals everywhere, Sarah Nelson defeated her doppelganger, who finished third.
Both Quarter Horses and mules are racing breeds that moved beyond the strict “live cover” guidelines of the Thoroughbred breed’s Jockey Club and ventured into artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET); innovative ways to breed horses without both parties having to be in the same breeding shed. As such, both registries have taken the next step into allowing cloned competitors, or will be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting them until the legal process sorts itself out.
This got me thinking about the Arabian breed – one that allows AI and ET. As a highly international breed, those processes have helped Arabian racing bloodlines have a bigger reach than they ever would if limited to strictly live cover matings.
At the same time, the breed is also through the proverbial looking glass in regards to setting a precedent for science to intervene in the natural breeding process. Once that line is crossed, it becomes difficult to exclude new methods such as cloning, as Quarter Horse breeders are now finding out.
The Arabian Jockey Club does not currently allow cloned horses to compete, and that does not look to change anytime soon. However, as breeding technology advances and courtrooms begin setting precedents on the subject, there could come a time when the Arabian racing community is faced with the possibility of having to admit cloned horses.
Where do I stand on the cloning of racehorses? I find it to be a fascinating case study in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, sure, but I am generally opposed to the idea. What makes our athletes special is that there is only one of them, and it takes catching lightning in a bottle to get that one. I have no moral qualms with the practice, but when it comes to the purity of the sport, it just feels like cheating.
With Arabian racing in such a unique position, I wanted to get the opinions of industry leaders on the topic to get a feel for where the breed stands and where it is headed in regards to cloning.
To get that perspective, I queried three of North America’s leading breeders of racing Arabians:
Kathy Smoke, Mokee Arabians
Todd Moak, Todd Moak Proven Bloodstock/Burning Sand International
Alan Kirshner, Cre Run Farm
Each has skin in the game on multiple levels and brings a unique perspective to the issue on a national and global scale. Following is what they had to say regarding the subject of cloning in Arabian racing.
1) If the issue were brought forth, where would you stand on the registration of cloned Arabian horses, especially with regards to racing?
Kathy Smoke: Absolutely do NOT want cloned Arabian horses for any discipline.
Todd Moak: I would not support the registration of cloned Arabian horses in any regard.
Alan Kirshner: I am against the registration of cloned Arabian horses to be used for cloning.
2) Do you think the current situation with the AQHA will have any bearing or precedence that might ripple into the Arabian registries?
KS: Absolutely. We ended up allowing ET because the Quarter Horse industry lost in court and the Arabian registry knew it didn’t have the funds to fight this issue if anyone in the Arabian industry brought this to the table.
Also, we can’t even regulate the number of ET’s per year. That would hold true for cloning, sad as it is. There are countries that have regulated the number of ET foals from the same mare that can be registered for racing purposes.
This type of breeding and/or cloning benefits the wealthy who can afford it. This stacks the deck against the small breeder who can only afford one AI or natural cover per mare per year.
TM: I do not think the situation with the AQHA will likely have any bearing or influence. Different breeds have maintained separate standards and accepted practices. While all breeds have common interests to some extent, I don’t think one registry’s decision should influence another, but more the membership of its constituents.
AK: The situation at AQHA will have a bearing on all registries that allow the use of shipped semen. It all began with the ability to have more than one foal out of the same mare in the same year, the Quarter Horse association lost on that and the other breeds except the Thoroughbreds chose to accept. I think the reason the Thoroughbreds can get away without it is the fact that they require the mare and the stallion to have natural mating.
3) Quarter Horse and mule racing both allow artificial insemination and both now allow cloning, or are at least seriously facing the possibility of it in their registry. Is cloning the next logical step in breeding once a registry has moved past live cover and into AI?
KS: Cloning is NOT AI. I was for the use of AI especially when trying to preserve a bloodline that was being lost. Cloning is messing with nature; and who can tell what cloned genetic DNA will do, down the line, to our horses? I would not breed to, or own, a cloned animal of any kind. Go to Wikipedia for a short review of Dolly [the first cloned sheep] and her life. Raises many questions. There’s tons of info out there if one wants to get educated on “cloning”.
TM: I do not think that cloning is the next logical step to AI. Further, I do not think that cloning is breeding. It is a totally different means of reproduction. The practice of AI benefits the majority of Arabian breeders for its practicality in access to stallions in our country and worldwide. It is a method of breeding that potentially is beneficial to all breeders.
AK: This doesn’t answer No. 3 but I do not believe that cloning will necessarily produce an athlete with the same athletic ability as the original horse. It may look like the horse but it does not necessarily have the other things that make up a champion.
I think that you would find that full siblings are genetically closer to each other than a clone to the horse. We all know that full brothers and sisters are not automatically good athletes.
4) Do you see cloned Arabians on the racetrack as a realistic possibility sometime in the future?
KS: If the courts continue to treat “livestock” as they do “securities” and allow this type of law based on “fair trade” it may be inevitable.
TM: Cloned Arabians on the racetrack are a possibility, as the science is available. However, I doubt that this will become reality as I do not think the registry would approve it. As most know, even if the registry approved, the entities that regulate racing would also have to allow these horses into competition. So I think the possibility is very remote.
AK: The cost of cloning and the cost of embryo transplants is very expensive and no one is their right mind would do this in today’s Arabian racing market. A few years ago Deb [Mihaloff] and I did embryo transfers. While we only did five or six, we do not feel that these transfers were as strong as those that were carried naturally by their mother. This definitely is not a scientific fact, but our gut feeling.
5) If cloning were allowed for racing Arabians, how would you react? How would it affect your business?
KS: When and if that day comes, I’ll quit breeding and racing Arabians completely. Kudos to The Jockey Club (Thoroughbreds) for holding fast. They must have known that moving to AI would be the slippery slope it has now proven to be.
TM: My reaction would not be favorable. As a breeder that has created some very successful runners, I think it could negatively affect my business, because the buyers of top runners around the world might invest in cloning of proven successes instead of buying other horses bred for the international market.
While I could potentially create clones from my top stallion, broodmares and runners, which could benefit my business financially, this would not be the case for the industry participants as a whole, which would be detrimental the industry.
AK: It doesn’t make any difference to me if they clone them or not. I have chosen to stay in the business even though I question the authenticity of some horses who claim to be full blooded Arabian horses. I would certainly not change my mind if they decided to clone.
6) Any other thoughts on the topic of cloning, especially in racing, that you would like to share?
KS: I understand that nurture over nature plays a large part in the development of any animal whether it results from natural cover, AI, or ET. However, ET is completely different from cloning.
I am 100% against cloning for purposes other than to preserve a species (not bloodline) that is becoming extinct. Even in this scenario this should only be done under the guidance of qualified scientists in a very controlled environment. I don’t even want to think about using cloning to bring back extinct species and yet I’ve read that is one use of cloning that scientists propose.
TM: As far as my knowledge of the success of cloning of mules, the performance of the clones has not equaled the donor. I agree with opinions I have read on the subject – science can recreate the physical specimen, but cannot duplicate other factors of great influence, such as mind and spirit of the clone and environmental factors.
Cloning, in my opinion, takes away from the art of breeding. As all breeders know, the success of a runner created from ones own ideas, care and management, is very satisfying. To duplicate by cloning is not in the same realm. The ability to create a clone is a matter determined by having the financial means to do it. This would create more disparity in the breeding community. It would discourage participation in breeding and racing.
Though the goal would be long term, the creation of a clone reaches further than the racing career of the cloned horse. Cloning could be practiced on a very successful gelding to recreate that individual as a stallion. Fillies could be cloned for breeding, in an attempt to recreate a great broodmare. While I respect the science, I think that the use for Arabian racing would cause harm to our industry.