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Champion Clones Join Texas Horse Stables

In Weatherford, Texas, about 20 miles west of Ft. Worth, the face of cloning is Royal Blue Boon Too, a perfect four-month-old filly tied to a tree branch in the middle of some of the most beautiful horse country in Texas.

Royal Blue Boon Too is a clone of one of greatest cutting horses of all time, Royal Blue Boon.

"She is truly the very same blue-steel color that her identical twin is," says Elaine Hall, who owns both Royal Blue Boon and her young clone. "Every time I look at her, it's just a miracle. I can't believe it's Royal Blue Boon. Again."

Hall says the 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.

Sport with Blue-Collar Roots

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. And her progeny have already won nearly $3 million on the competition circuit.

Royal Blue Boon -- the original -- is now 26 years old. She is an aging brood mare, retired and a little achy. But Royal Blue Boon Too has her whole life ahead of her; she could produce a long line of cutting champions.

"When the opportunity was there, I thought I should take it -- or get left in the dust," Hall says of her decision to clone her champion horse.

The sport is giving birth to a commercial horse-cloning industry in Texas. ViaGen, based in high-tech Austin, is leading the way.

The company's laboratory is run by Irina Polejaeva, who led the team that produced the world's first pig clones six years ago. Technicians start with a horse embryo. They suck out the embryo's DNA and fuse the emptied egg with the DNA of the horse to be cloned. A small tissue sample suffices.

The technique is still new, and ViaGen's 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 refine the procedure, that price will come down.

"We certainly intend to get better, says ViaGen President Mark Walton. "We've seen it in pigs and we've seen it in cattle. And we're nowhere close to the top of the efficiency curve."

Walton understands that cloning is not fully accepted yet.

"I think people hear the word 'cloning,' and they envision giant beakers that are bubbling away, and out pops a full grown horse," he says.

ViaGen predicts it will produce as many as 30 more cloned horses over the next year.

A Long History of Selective Breeding

Humans have been artificially breeding horses since Arabian chieftains began to artificially inseminate their white Arabians 500 years ago. The industry hasn't looked back since.

Now, cloning is giving owners of champions a powerful new tool to improve their bloodlines and their pocketbooks. The National Cutting Horse Association has welcomed clones, but not everyone is on board -- especially in the elite world of Thoroughbred racing.

"Quite honestly, I think it's all a bit ghoulish," says Alan Marzelli, the president of the U.S. Jockey Club, the breed registry for American Thoroughbreds. "I think there's a point at which the science goes too far. And I think, personally, whether it's humans or animals, cloning is about too far."

The Jockey Club opposes not only cloning but any type of assisted reproduction. To be eligible for registration as a Thoroughbred, a horse must have been produced by old-fashioned mounting.

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 -- and his owners would lose out on potential millions in stud fees.

But if Barbaro were a cutting horse, it wouldn't be a problem. In fact, cutting horse owners don't let their valuable champions mate naturally: It's too risky, like having your star quarterback ride around on a motorcycle.

Mulling the Problem Over with Mules

But the very first equines ever cloned actually weren't horses at all; they were racing mules named Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. Now 3 years old, they recently competed in their first professional race in Winnemucca, Nev.

Dirk Vanderwall and Gordon Woods of the University of Idaho and Ken White of Utah State collaborated to create Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. Vanderwall was in Winnemucca, where both clones won their elimination races on June 3.

"It's a storybook sort of script," Vanderwall said of the clones' wins. "You couldn't have written it any better than that."

The American Mule Racing Association has decided to allow cloned mules -- and any genetic offspring they may produce -- to compete. When both clones won their respective heats, it made headlines across the nation. The results provided an important layer of legitimacy for horse-cloning advocates: Cloned equines can win.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.