LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Any child who grew up going to Hollywood's movies about the Wild West can tell you that Texas was full of cowboys and Indians - and horses. That's how you got around, after all.
The Lone Star State is still home to more than a million horses, and some Texans have begun adding to their herds in rather unusual ways: by cloning their champion horses.
From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
When you think about cloning, the first images that pop into your mind don't necessarily involve pastoral beauty, maybe a T-rex chasing down Jeff Goldblum instead, or a big guy named Frank with stitches in his forehead, waiting to get hit by lightening.
(Soundbite of horse whinny)
GOODWYN: Instead, here in Weatherford, about 20 miles west of Fort Worth, the face of cloning is a perfect, 4-month-old filly, tied to a tree branch in the middle of some of the most beautiful horse country in Texas.
Ms. ELAINE HALL (Owner, Royal Blue Boon II): Hi, sugar britches. This is the second time today you've been fooled with.
(Soundbite of horse whinny)
GOODWYN: Elaine Hall is the owner of Royal Blue Boon II, a clone of one of the greatest cutting horses of all time: Royal Blue Boon.
Ms. HALL: She is truly the very same steel blue color that her identical twin is. I still - every time I look at her - it's just a miracle. I can't believe it's really here and it's Royal Blue Boon again.
GOODWYN: Hall says this filly will never be trained to be a cutting horse champion, because that's unnecessary. The clone's template, Royal Blue Boon, has already proved all there is to prove in the arena.
Cutting horse competitions evolved out of the necessity of cowboys having to separate calves from the herd. Those little calves are quick, and their desire to get back to their mothers is intense. A great cutting horse can block the calf from the herd like a point guard keeping his man from the basket: back and forth. In the cutting horse world, Royal Blue Boon was as famous as Michael Jordan. Elaine Hall says she can already see Royal Blue Boon's qualities in Royal Blue Boon II.
Ms. HALL: Royal Blue Boon always had this spunk about her, where if she didn't like something, or if she got real intense on working on a cow, she would pin those ears back. This little horse does the same thing. When she gets really focused on something and it doesn't particularly agree with her, her ears will be just flat back.
GOODWYN: Royal Blue Boon, the original, is now 26 years old. She's an aging brood mare, retired and a little achy. But Royal Blue Boon II has her whole life ahead of her. She could produce a long line of cutting champions.
Ms. HALL: So, when the opportunity was there, I decided that I should take it, because even though I may be old-fashioned and not very high-tech, if you don't stay up with all the high-tech, then I know that you're going to fall behind in the dust and be left in the dust.
GOODWYN: The sport is giving birth to a commercial horse cloning industry in Texas, and ViaGen, in high-tech Austin, is leading the way.
Dr. IRINA POLEJAEVA (Senior Vice President of Research, ViaGen, Inc.): Here's the tissue culture lab where we process the tissue. You can see these two incubators where cells are cultured at specific temperature.
GOODWYN: Irina Polejaeva is the genetic scientist in charge at ViaGen, and a leader in animal cloning. Her technicians take a horse embryo and first suck out the embryo's DNA.
Dr. POLEJAEVA: There's two pipettes, or holders - one holder/pipette will fix the egg in a certain condition. We will visualize DNA inside of the egg. We're using specific dye. So we can see the DNA in the bluish color, because it's stained.
GOODWYN: Into the now empty egg is fused to the champion's DNA. A small tissue sample suffices. This is all very new. The scientists at ViaGen are still learning, and their success rate is below 40 percent. That's one reason why it costs $150,000 to clone a horse. But as the scientists at ViaGen get better, that price will come down.
Mr. MARK WALTON (President, ViaGen, Inc.): We certainly intend to get better. We've seen it in pigs and we've seen it in cattle, and we're no where close to the top of the efficiency curve. We don't know what the real maximum efficiency is going to be.
GOODWYN: Mark Walton is the president of ViaGen. Walton fully understands that cloning is not fully accepted yet.
Mr. WALTON: There's this definite perception, this science-fiction kind of a perception, and I think, people hear the word cloning, and they envision that in our lab, we've got giant beakers that are bubbling away, and out pops a full-grown horse.
GOODWYN: But humans have been artificially breeding horses since Arabian chieftains began to artificially inseminate their white Arabians 500 years ago. Now cloning is giving owners of champions a powerful new tool to improve their bloodlines and their pocketbooks. But not everyone is on board, especially not thoroughbred racing.
Mr. ALAN MARZELLI (President, The Jockey Club, USA): I think it's all a bit ghoulish. I think there's a point at which the science goes too far, and I think, personally speaking, whether it's humans or animals, cloning is about too far.
GOODWYN: Alan Marzelli is the president of the U.S. Jockey Club, the breed registry for American thoroughbreds. Not only is the Jockey Club opposed to cloning but any type of assisted reproduction. That stand, rooted in thoroughbred tradition, has become increasingly controversial. The injury to Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, has only served to ratchet up the discussion.
If Barbaro can't manage to mount a mare, he would be lost as a stud forever, a staggering sum financially. But if Barbaro was a cutting horse, it wouldn't be a problem. In fact, cutting horse owners don't usually let their valuable champions mate naturally; it's too risky, like having your star quarterback ride around on a motorcycle.
When it comes to assisted reproduction, the Jockey Club is at one end of the spectrum, the National Cutting Horse Association the other. But the very first equines ever cloned actually weren't horses at all, they were racing mules named Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. Now three years old, they recently competed in their very first professional race in Winnemucca, Nevada.
Unidentified Man: Go!
GOODWYN: Dirk Vanderwall and Gordon Woods from the University of Idaho and Ken White from Utah State collaborated to create Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. Vanderwall was in Winnemucca.
Dr. DIRK VANDERWALL (Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Idaho; Director, Northwest Equine Reproduction Laboratory): In just the outcome on Saturday, with Idaho Gem winning his elimination race and Idaho Star winning his elimination race, it just, you know, it's sort of storybook, sort of script that you couldn't have written it any better than that.
GOODWYN: When both clones won their respective heats, it made headlines across the nation. The American Mule Racing Association has decided cloned mules and their heirs are okay to compete.
Back in Austin, Texas, ViaGen predicts that the company will produce as many as 30 more cloned horses over the next year.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: If you want to see some clones race and win, go to npr.org.
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