Cloned horses are galloping their way toward the Olympic Games. The organization that presides over international equestrian events has reversed its position on prohibiting cloned horses from participating in competitions. The Fédération Equestre Internationale in Lausanne, Switzerland, announced their decision in June following a meeting in which up-to-date information on cloning was presented to the federation. Federation members then held a debate, after which it was decided that, for equestrian, cloned horses do not have a clear competitive advantage over non-cloned horses. Because the ruling is so recent, cloned horses do not number amongst the competition at the London Games. But we’re sure to see them at future Olympic Games. The ruling also raises a broader question: how will cloning impact animals in other sports as well?
Dr. Graeme Cooke, the veterinary director for the federation, cites variables outside of genetics that go into making a horse a winner. Maternal environment, training, the rider’s skill and his or her relationship to the horse all have major influence on how competitive the horse will be. The cumulative effect of these variables, he says, means that there can be no unfair advantages conferred by cloning a prize horse.
For Mary Chapot, a former equestrian Olympian who now breeds and trains horses, cloning was the only thing that saved her prized show-jumper stallion’s bloodline. The stallion, named Gem Twist, could not reproduce. Stallions are hard to train and castrating them makes them easier to train but, obviously, makes them useless for breeding. But Chapot cloned her horse and gave rise to its genetic double, Gemini. Gemini has already sired two offspring. As the ruling applies to both clones and their progeny, if the offspring prove to have attributes similar to Gem Twist, these offspring would be eligible for the Olympics in the future. It will be a while before we know, however, as show-jumpers are not allowed to compete until they are nine years old.
So would cloning do away with the need to spend millions on studs coming from the best lineages? This is a very real concern for Thoroughbred racing, which prohibits reproduction by any means other than natural. This may sound similar to Europe’s resistance to genetically modified foods in the name of purity, but the Thoroughbred’s registry, the Jockey Club, is almost certainly concerned about profits as much as it is about purity. Dr. Doug Antczak, an equine geneticist at Cornell University, told Forbes that were the top stallions made sources of unlimited offspring through cloning, it would “disrupt the structure of the Thoroughbred breeding industry by reducing the need for lots of stallions.” Moreover, it seems as though cloning star performers has the potential to impact Thoroughbred racing, where speed dominates, much more than equestrian sport. It’s easy to imagine, especially at a time when we’re cloning our pets, drug-sniffing dogs, even bringing back an extinct species, that animal cloning could impact a number of sports. People are already dishing out exorbitant amounts of money to replace ‘priceless’ show dogs, but will cloning the speediest greyhounds be allowed? No doubt Iditarod sled mushers would love to stack their entire team with their strongest husky. That’s now possible with cloning. If cloning regulations aren’t already in place for a given sport involving an animal, they soon will be.