Could the 2033 Kentucky Derby be something straight out of a science fiction novel, with clones, maybe even some duplicates of past winners, filling the starting gate in the "Rerun for the Roses"? As far-fetched as that may seem, it became a little less far-fetched earlier this week when a Texas judge ruled that the American Quarter Horse Association had to accept clones into its breed registry, which opens the door to all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
Clones aren't allowed to compete in Thoroughbred racing because the Jockey Club won't allow them -- for any horse to race in North America, it must be registered by that organization. However, the AQHA has a similar ban on clones, and the Texas court ruled that the quarter horse organization was violating antimonopoly laws by banning cloned animals. The AQHA has appealed the decision.
We don't see this as something where someone is going to create 20 copies of a famous horse and pit them against one another. There really wouldn't be a good reason to do that.
"-- Kathleen McNulty, Replica Farm owner
After the quarter-horse-clone ruling, the Jockey Club maintained that the decision would have no bearing on how it goes about its business. It issued a statement that read: "The facts involved in the AQHA case are very different from those applicable to the registration of Thoroughbreds and the decision in that case has no bearing on the rules for registering Thoroughbreds. 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 the Thoroughbred breed are best served by the current rules."
But you can bet that the Jockey Club is keeping a close eye on what is going on with the courts and the AQHA. While any decisions that may come out of this particular case will have no immediate bearing on Thoroughbred racing, they will set important legal precedents. Should someone sue the Jockey Club in an effort to force them to accept clones in the breed registry, they obviously would have a strong case.
Cloned horses were allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympics, and clones have competed in pari-mutual mule races, of which there are a handful held each year at the Northern California fair racetracks. Thoroughbred clones exist, and some have been used in the show jumping field.
But most in the Thoroughbred industry, not to mention the quarter horse and harness games, want no part of clones. Accepting clones in Thoroughbred racing wouldn't be rocking the boat, it would be a Titanic-like crash of the boat, and the racing and breeding industries don't want that sort of upheaval.
Some might envision mad scientists sitting in laboratories bringing Secretariat and Man o'War back to life. There's not yet a way to bring those horses back or any other horse that has been dead for more than a few days.
The primary thing cloning could accomplish would be to give horses who are unable to reproduce naturally a chance to pass on their genes. A gelding can be reproduced through cloning and the clone could breed naturally. A top broodmare can also be reproduced with the clone able to carry on as a broodmare.
You could also reproduce versions of horses currently racing. Do you like 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb? Why not make 10 more of him?
According to Kathleen McNulty, the owner of Replica Farm, which works in the cloning field, that is entirely possible. But would the clones be as good as the original?
McNulty says the cloning field is more interested in creating new ways to carry on bloodlines than it is in creating replicas of famous racehorses.
"It doesn't mean that the clones you create would necessarily all be winners, because there is a lot of nurture in the nurture-versus-nature equation when it comes to horses," McNulty said. "A lot is left up to debate. If you create a clone of a Kentucky Derby winner, the clone is going to have the same DNA, so it's going to have the same conformation and a lot of the same attributes. So its athletic ability would certainly be there, and whether or not it could actually accomplish a lot on the racetrack will depend on events that may or may not happen when it's growing up, like how it's trained or whether or not it gets hurt. Could a clone be every bit as fast? Technically, yes. Is it going to turn out that way? It would depend on a lot of circumstances."
But McNulty says the cloning field is more interested in creating new ways to carry on bloodlines than it is in creating replicas of famous racehorses.
"We don't see this as something where someone is going to create 20 copies of a famous horse and pit them against one another," she said. "There really wouldn't be a good reason to do that. But we have seen in the cattle industry where people have cloned a top-performing bull and put breeding copies of that bull in different continents. Something like that correlates to the Thoroughbred industry. You could have a copy of a top stallion standing in the U.S., in Europe, in Asia. That would allow mare owners more access to the stallions and the DNA."
Cloning Thoroughbred racehorses isn't exactly right around the corner. But is it coming? A Texas judge might just have ensured that it is.