The Science of Making Horses

In Texas, creating genetic pony copies has gone from fiction to reality to big business.

Aiken Cura was one of the best polo stallions ever bred, a favorite mount of world champion player Adolfo Cambiaso. Tragically, the horse was euthanized at the peak of its fitness seven years ago, after a broken foreleg led to an emergency amputation. Yet today an identical chestnut Thoroughbred is cantering around a farm in Argentina, being lavished with love and attention by a besotted Cambiaso. How is that possible? The answer is more Island of Dr. Moreau than Animal Planet: The young colt is a clone.

Polo is leading the charge in the field of genetic wizardry thanks to a single horse-mad Texan entrepreneur, Alan Meeker, who turned his own medical problem into an equestrian gold mine. A decade ago, at just 39 years old, the resources magnate was left reeling after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. While investigating potential cures, Meeker chanced on an outlandish but intriguing idea: the possibility of cloning and then replacing his own pancreas. The time frame and the cost (an estimated five decades and $100 million, respectively) deterred him from pursuing that project. Cloning, however, had piqued his interest, specifically in relation to one thing: polo. Meeker has long been a devoted chukker lover—“The worst day on a polo field is better than any day sitting in an office,” he says—and he saw both financial and sporting potential in cloning champion ponies. Less than ten years later, in 2010, the first foal produced by Meeker’s company, Crestview Genetics, in association with cloning specialist ViaGen, was born in Texas.

The cloning process itself is surprisingly straightforward. A tiny sample of tissue is harvested from just beneath the target horse’s skin, then a donor oocyte (an immature egg) is washed clean of its innate DNA. Think of that egg like a box of Legos with the potential to turn itself into any horse; once the new genetic material is inserted, vets trigger those cells to mature, much as a sperm does naturally in utero. The embryo is implanted, and 11 months later, a cloned foal is born.

Since he started the program, Meeker claims that his firm has created more than 70 equine replicas, including that look-alike of Aiken Cura for Cambiaso. (The grieving but forward-thinking player had his horse’s tissue cryogenically frozen in anticipation of such advances.) Meeker’s firm charges approximately $150,000 a horse—a bargain given that a clone of another of Cambiaso’s champion mares, Cuartetera, fetched $800,000 at auction.

The economics are so alluring, it’s hardly surprising that Crestview’s lab is booked through the end of 2013. In the past, one stallion could breed 100 mares each year; the problem, of course, was finding an ample supply of suitable mothers. “What we’ve done is taken the best mares on the planet and cloned them, in some cases as many as ten times, and now each is producing eggs,” Meeker explains. “We sell an egg to a breeder who goes to bed on Sunday night thinking, If only I had a Cuartetera baby, I know I could create something special in my herd. Now the price is within his reach and life changes for him and his family.” The program is rapidly accelerating; between July and September 17 new cloned foals were born, with more expected this winter. That slate includes extra copies of Cuartetera plus replicas of another champion mare, the feisty and temperamental Lapa. (Strikingly, the clones of Lapa born so far have had snarling dispositions similar to that of their “mother.”) Another lure of cloning: It turns champion geldings into stud stallions, able to be replicated for the first time.

Given that equine replicating is such an elite and lucrative business, it isn’t surprising that the process is spat-prone. While Meeker operates a for-profit business, leveraging ViaGen’s exclusive patents on animal cloning, nearby Texas A&M University offers a similar service as part of its research program. “We do not clone commercially,” says project leader Dr. Katrin Hinrichs, stressing every word. Rather, the process there has usually involved a research donation from interested owners, who receive a cloned foal as thanks. (“The researchers at Texas A&M shouldn’t have done it if they received $100,000 for it,” counters Meeker.) So far the Texas A&M team has successfully produced 16 live births. Hinrichs is more cautious about the concept than Meeker, pointing to the health problems many endure. Cloned foals are slower to stand and nurse than their natural-born counterparts, she says. Most usually need oxygen after birth, and crooked front legs are also fairly common.

The ones that thrive, though, are now cleared by the governing body the International Federation of Equestrian Sports to compete in jumping, eventing and dressage, including at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Clones are banned from racecourses, at least for now, and remain untested but permitted in the polo community. That’s because most polo mounts do not compete until they reach at least five years of age. Many players, including Canadian pro Brandon Phillips, are enthusiastic about the looming potential behind such veterinary sleights of hand. “Finding a great horse is next to impossible, so if you have one and you can make two or three of it, so be it,” he says.

African pro Olu Jolaoso agrees and says he would love to train a cloned pony. But Jolaoso warns that genetics are just one factor in producing a champion mount; a clone of Lapa, for instance, is only identical to her mother at birth, thanks to nature, before her training, or nurture, diverges. His true concern about the rise in cloning, however, is the impact it could have on the sport should it become too widespread. “The beauty of polo is that you have ponies and players with different rankings and handicaps,” he says, then pauses. “Would the game be as exciting if you had four ponies on the field that were exactly the same?”

The Clone Season

Horses aren’t the first animals to be the subject of our obsession with cloning. Herewith, a brief history of man playing God.

1932: The dystopian society of Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, becomes famously known for its preference for cloning over conventional reproduction.

1952: Two American scientists conduct the first successful experiment in animal cloning: tadpoles of northern leopard frogs.

1996: Dolly the sheep, the first animal cloned from adult cells, is born. She lives for seven years before being euthanized due to lung disease; in the interim, Dolly gives birth to six healthy lambs, all conceived by natural mating.

2004: The company Genetic Savings and Clone engineers Little Nicky, a Maine Coon cat replica. It becomes the first operation in the world to offer commercial pet cloning, only to shutter two years later.

2005: Two years after a company in South Korea publishes a study claiming to have created the first human clone, its author, Hwang Woo-suk, is revealed to have committed fraud.

2011: Using cell nuclear transfer, researchers try to create human embryonic stem cells, the first step to human cloning. In May 2013 another group succeeds.

2013: Google’s Sergey Brin is one of the backers funding the first ever cloned-meat hamburger, a five-ounce patty that cost $330,000 to grow from cow muscle in the lab. “It’s close to meat—it’s not that juicy,” sighs one taste tester.

Fact: The term “clone” (from the Greek word for “twig”) became popular only after its use by biologist J.B.S. Haldane in 1963.