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Long odds on a cloned racehorse

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Italian scientists say they've created the world's first cloned horse. (August 6)
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Should the cloning of racehorses be allowed?

LONDON, England -- News that scientists in Italy have created the world's first cloned horse has raised the possibility of the world's greatest racehorses -- another Man o' War, Secretariat, Arkle, Mill Reef or Desert Orchid perhaps -- living on through life-copies.

Heads and skeletons of some of Britain's greatest horses, such as Eclipse and Persimmon, are held at the National Horseracing museum at Newmarket and DNA might be recoverable to help produce a clone.

But the odds on a cloned racehorse being a winner are, it seems, very long indeed -- and the idea could even be a non-runner.

Italian scientists said Wednesday they had created the world's first cloned horse, Prometea, from an adult cell taken from the horse who gave birth to her. (Full story)

The world of racing was being distinctly cool on the idea of a winner of the Epsom or Kentucky Derby being cloned.

John Maxse, director of public relations for the UK Jockey Club, told CNN that every organization in racing -- in 70 countries worldwide -- outlawed any form of artificial or unnatural birth.

This was for three reasons, he said. First, cloning would devastate the bloodstock industry around the world -- notably in Ireland and Kentucky -- because prices for sending mares to stallions, currently $8,000 to $160,000, would fall.

"It would put hundreds of thousands of jobs which depend on the breeding industry at risk," he said.

Second, cloning would dilute the gene pool which would restrict diversity among horses and increase the risk of disease and deformities due to inbreeding.

"Thirdly, it would reduce the level of unpredictability in racing, and it is a level of unpredictability is what all sports depend on," he said.

"Sport should not be allowed to become a playground or amusement park for scientists," he added.

"It will never happen in my lifetime," Grand National winning jockey Marcus Armytage, now a journalist, told CNN, saying that the racing authorities just wouldn't stand for it.

Armytage said that even if it were possible to reproduce the likes of Arkle with a modern trainer, there was no way of ensuring the success of the clone as there were too many random factors.

"The only thing would be to have 10 Arkles and then perhaps two or three of them would turn out as good as the original. But none of the clones would be the same."

The British Horseracing Board described as "quite fanciful" the notion that it might be possible to clone a racehorse with the ability of a Best Mate, a Crepello, or a Red Rum.

A spokesman told the UK's Press Association: "We view this development with concern but certainly not alarm. We have to take these scientific elements seriously.

"But the fact that only the produce of natural coverings can be eligible to race is enshrined in racing law.

"There are over 50 countries signed up to an international agreement on this."

Philip Freedman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, told PA the development was of "no value" to the racing community because horses created by artificial insemination could not enter world racing stud books.

He said it was "theoretically possible" that the fertility technology could be used privately, or for show-jumping animals.

But Professor Twink Allen, of the Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket, said the birth was a "wonderful breakthrough" and sent his congratulations to the Italian team.

"It has been done in other species before, of course, but to have it in a horse is a major and important breakthrough," he told PA.

The Italian team that created Prometea believes the chances are good for cloned champion geldings -- castrated horses.

"There is an interest in cloning those animals because they cannot reproduce anymore because they were castrated at a young age. A good proportion of sporting champions are geldings," said Prometea's creator, Dr. Cesare Galli.

One equine scientist, Dr Eric Palmer, has set up accompany Cryozootech in Evry, France, to work on gelding genetics.

He told Britain's Daily Telegraph that he aims to clone a champion stallion which was castrated then use the clone for conventional breeding. "This answers most of the objections that will certainly be raised," he said.

Palmer says he has stored tissue from Quidam de Revel "probably the best stallion for show jumping in Europe" and recommends breeders to freeze the cells of outstanding animals for possible cloning use later.

Galli said cloning sporting animals would not guarantee generations of cloned champions, because many factors, including character and the interaction with people who train them, were important for producing top racing horses.

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