FORBES.COM -- JULY 30, 2012 -- As boutique Thoroughbred meets at Del Mar and Saratoga are being contested this summer, equestrian athletes of another sort are strutting their stuff in London at the Olympics in eventing, dressage, and jumping. Competitions began on Saturday and will continue through August 9.
Last month, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body for equestrian sport, announced a change in its position on cloned equine athletes. Said FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke in a statement, “An up-to-date review on cloning, resulting in an increased understanding of the technique, was presented to and debated at the FEI Sports Forum. The performance of a cloned horse is unlikely to match that of the original horse for a number of reasons…[and] as progeny of cloned horses will be produced by conventional reproductive methods, such as natural covering or artificial insemination, the FEI’s 2007 stated objective of maintaining fair play is upheld. The FEI will therefore not forbid participation of clones or their progenies in FEI competitions.”
So while the equine athletes competing in London are “real” horses, it may not be too long before you’ll see cloned animals coming to an equine competition near you.
Thoroughbred racing is unlikely to soon follow suit. The Jockey Club, which is the breed registry for Thoroughbred horses in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, is “dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing,” and expressly prohibits Thoroughbred procreation through any but natural means. You can read the details here, rule 1, section D, which includes all the biological specifics (as graphic and dispassionate as a middle school sex ed class).
Said the organization in a statement, “The Jockey Club, as an organization dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred racing and breeding, believes that the short- and long-term welfare of the sport of Thoroughbred racing and Thoroughbred breed are best served by the current rules.”
Cloning isn’t the only technology that Thoroughbred racing forbids; it also nixes artificial insemination, which harness racing permits. Dr. Doug Antczak, a professor of equine medicine and an equine geneticist at Cornell University, attributes the sport’s resistance to assisted reproductive technology to both financial and biological reasons.
“The effect of unlimited services available from top stallions would disrupt the structure of the Thoroughbred breeding industry by reducing the need for lots of stallions,” he said.
Not exactly music to the ears of the big breeding farms in Kentucky, Florida, New York, and elsewhere. Good-bye, stud fees. So long, stallions.
Antczak went on, “Cloning and artificial insemination could also have an inappropriate genetic effect on horses by making them more inbred.”
Sandy Hatfield, stallion manager at Three Chimneys Farm, one of Lexington, Kentucky’s most prestigious breeding farms, concurred. “All Thoroughbreds go back to three stallions; the gene pool in the sport is very small. If you make it even smaller than we have now, pretty soon, everybody’s going to be by the same horse.”
Antczak’s and Hatfield’s opinions are informed by the natural assumption that if assisted reproductive technology were available, Thoroughbred breeders would access only the genetic material of elite stallions, thus depleting the gene pool. Hatfield pointed out another drawback, using Mr. Prospector as an example.
Mr. Prospector earned $112,171 on the racetrack. He never won a graded stakes race and by not even the most charitable assessment could he be considered a great racehorse. No one, though, would discount him as one of the sport’s top sires.
According to figures provided by Brisnet, Mr. Prospector sired 1,178 foals, 980 of which made at least one start in a race. 739 of them won, with total earnings of $85,903,784.
Among his offspring are Afleet, a Canadian champion whose progeny have earned more than $125,000,000; Fusaichi Pegasus, 2000 Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner-up; and Gulch, a multiple graded stakes winner.
Asked Hatfield, “If Thoroughbred racing permitted artificial insemination, would Mr. Prospector ever have had a chance to sire the great offspring he did?”
While dubious about the adoption of AI or other technologies in the near future, Hatfield does see some potential uses and benefits.
“Artificial insemination could be beneficial for injured mares or stallions that can’t breed,” she said. “It would be hard to police, though.”
A third type of reproductive technology, used in polo but not in not Thoroughbred racing, is embryonic transfer, the equine equivalent of the test tube baby, in which a fertilized egg from one mare would be placed in another, a practice for which Antczak sees more potential than she does cloning.
“It’s sort of like reproductive women’s rights for horses,” he said. “With embryo transfer, you can capture much more genetic potential from a female, who can have only one foal a year, while males can breed to 150 females a year for 10 years. Currently, we’re not really using the genetic potential of top mares to the best effect.”
Hatfield is more cautious about the possibility, raising questions about flooding the market with the genetic material of a particular horse.
Referring to the 2010 Horse of the Year who retired with a record of 19 wins in 20 races and who was the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, she asked, “If Zenyatta can have 10 foals a year instead of one, would that be good for the industry or bad?”