Cloning horses is the new frontier for the equestrian world

AIKEN, S.C. – He was one of the most beloved horses in the world. Aiken Cura, owned by top-ranked polo player Adolfo Cambiaso, was strong and sleek and swift – so much that he was known even beyond his sport's elite circles. And then during one match in Argentina in 2006, the stallion broke down. Cambiaso cried as the ambulance took him away. Aiken Cura was fitted with a prosthesis, but in 2007 he had to be put down. And that, many thought, would be the last time the world would see the likes of Aiken Cura.

But on a blistering summer day here in this quiet patch of countryside, a huge wooden gate opens to reveal a winding roadway through hundreds of acres of rolling land. The plot is dotted by ponies that roam in packs. One of them trots gallantly in the shade of a gathering of trees. He has a light brown coat speckled with white dots. To most, he looks like just another horse. But to the truest polo fans, and to Cambiaso himself, he is unmistakable.

This is Aiken Cura's clone.

There are 11 other clones here as well, all less than a year old and all bred for polo. Aiken Cura's son lives a few miles away from here and has run with the identical twin of his dead father.

The owner of this farm, a man named Alan Meeker, is in business with Cambiaso and has other clones in Argentina. Two of them, he says, are genetic replicas of top thoroughbreds. They are almost three years old, and Meeker says they run "like the wind."

Americans don't care much for polo, but the success of Meeker and Cambiaso's cloning venture may have huge implications for what was once one of the most popular sports in America – horse racing. There has been a subtle shift in perception of cloned horses worldwide, underscored last week when Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international equestrian governing body, reversed an earlier ban on clones in competition.

Though it's too late for any cloned horses to be entered in the London Games, clones will be allowed to participate in the Olympics beginning in 2016. The FEI's decision is based on the belief that clones are not 100 percent identical and also that the rider and environment make a difference in a horse's performance.

"The current state of science suggests it would be difficult to produce a clone with the exact same attributes as the original," says Doug Antczak, a veterinary scientist at Cornell University. "Even if we could produce and exact copy, once it's born, then it's going to have a different environment and it would be very hard to duplicate the entire raising of the animal."

So the thinking is there's no such thing as an exact clone, just like there's no such thing as an exact identical twin. "Therefore," Dr. Graeme Cooke, the FEI's veterinary director, told ABC News, "we came to the conclusion that there were so many variables there were no unfair advantages that were contrary to the spirit of sport."

This reasoning, however, does not mean cloning will be allowed in thoroughbred racing, at least not in the short term. The Jockey Club, the organization dedicated to maintaining the integrity of horse racing, won't even acknowledge a clone, let alone allow it into a race.

"Cloning or any other form of genetic manipulation shall not be eligible for registration," the Jockey Club rules state. Bob Curran, spokesman for the Jockey Club, says this is "for the long-term health of the breed."

Most (if not all) thoroughbred racing experts agree with the policy.

"Anybody can clone Secretariat," says Dan Rosenberg of Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington. "Not everyone can breed Secretariat. It takes a lot of fun out of it – a lot of the intrigue. How much fun is it to watch and bet on a race when all 20 starters are Seattle Slew clones? How much fun is it when everybody on the course is Tiger Woods? To me, that's not fun."

And yet horse racing seems to become less and less fun by the year. I'll Have Another's stirring bid for the Triple Crown was marred not only by his pre-Belmont Stakes breakdown but the reports that he had a litany of medical ailments. The hope of seeing another Secretariat now seems as remote as the hope of seeing another time when horse racing is America's premier sport. Meeker, the man who owns this farm, is a polo fan first. But if given the chance, he would not hesitate to clone one of the world's famous thoroughbreds.

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"If I cloned [I'll Have Another] 10 times," he says, "I would likely get many healthy babies able to run."

Meeker is CEO of a private equity group in Texas who has made his fortune in commodities and been interested in cloning since he saw a PBS special on the topic as a boy. He loves polo and, as he says, "wanted to own the best."

He spent years researching and visiting polo hotbeds such as Argentina and genetic science hotbeds such as MIT. He forged a friendship with Cambiaso and then approached Texas-based ViaGen, a commercial animal gene bank and cloning service which has successfully cloned champion equestrian horses over the last several years. After entering into a licensing agreement with ViaGen and building a cloning lab in Argentina under the company Crestview Genetics, Meeker says he now has genetics of 80 of the best polo horses who ever lived.

"I have 40 clones on the ground," Meeker says. "We're going to do hundreds."

The history of cloning horses for sport is brief: Show jumping horses were successfully cloned in 2006 and 2008, and the first polo pony was cloned in 2010. Cells are drawn from a tissue biopsy, then a nucleus from a donated egg is replaced by the nucleus of a cell from the original horse. Eggs are then implanted in surrogate mares. (This is also the process of how humans would be cloned, though Meeker emphatically states he only wants to clone horses and other animals.)

The process costs more than $100,000, but it is extremely efficient compared to the painstaking and financially risky effort to breed top horses. (I'll Have Another was auctioned in 2011 for $135,000, which was considered one of the greatest bargains in thoroughbred history. He was sold for $10 million last month to a Japanese ranch.) In 2010, a clone of another polo legend, Cuartertera, was auctioned for $800,000 in Argentina. More than 1,000 people attended the auction, and the horse was purchased by an ownership group that included top tennis player David Nalbandian.

"You can't stop progress," David Morley, chairman of the Hurlingham Polo Association pony welfare committee, told Horse and Hound Magazine in 2010. "You just have to monitor the situation and make sure it is not detrimental to the horses or the sport. People were very skeptical about embryo transfer to start with, but it has really caught on."

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Although the principal argument against the cloning of horses – the maintaining of the purity of the sport – is still quite strong, the other argument against it has faded. Many have worried that cloning is unsafe and produces malformed or deficient horses. Meeker says he's never had a health problem with any of his clones and he compares it to in vitro fertilization, which caused an uproar in the 1970s but has produced more than a generation of healthy "test tube" human babies. And the idea that cloning would dilute the breed isn't quite sound.

"I don't think it's a risk to the horses or the breed," says Antczak, the veterinary scientist from Cornell. "There's no way to produce 10,000 copies of one particular horse. It's just too hard to do it."

But to Meeker, it's not just about producing healthy clones; it's about producing replicas of the best horses in history. And since that's just as much about training and disposition as it is about physical attributes, the big question going forward is whether clones of great sport horses will have the same temperament as their originals. Basically: How much is nature and how much is nurture? Would a Secretariat clone love to run the same way? Antczak has a clever answer: "We wouldn't bet on it." But Meeker is doing exactly that.

Across from Aiken Cura, there are three horses. They all have the same name, Lapa, after another top polo horse in Argentina. The original Lapa, Meeker says, was "meaner than a snake," and he wondered if the clones would have the same disposition. Then he noticed all three clone babies pinning their ears back at one month old. Now, at nine months, they're banding together like brothers, roaming together and snarling at human visitors. That behavior is extremely rare; how often do you see horses in open spaces traveling in packs?

"All the Lapas have the same mean disposition," Meeker says. "They'll bite you. They'll kick you. It's uncanny. Freaky. It's all there. It's eerie. But it's wonderful."

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