Some bulls in Spain are simply irreplaceable. They are the sementales, or breeding bulls, prized and pampered to produce offspring that fight and die in the ring. When their time is past, they are mourned like a great racing stallion would be in Britain.
But now, one bull's fabulous powers are to be continued by a clone. The prestigious breeder Vitoriano del Rio, who supplies bulls to die in the afternoon in plazas throughout Spain, has contracted an American company in a pioneering attempt to clone his star bull, Alcalde.
Next month the genetics company ViaGen will take a piece of Alcalde's skin to clone Spain's first fighting bull in its laboratories in Texas. Alcalde, weighing 600kg (1,320lb), has produced offspring whose quality in the ring has restored the reputation of many a fading bullfighter. The young hopeful Julian Lopez, El Juli, triumphed in Madrid's Las Ventas bullring last May by subduing Cantapajaros, a descendant of Alcalde. And among today's great matadors, Enrique Ponce and Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez compete to buy Vitorianos of similar pedigree.
"Alcalde is a one-off, a beast that is incomparable and beyond price," said Vitoriano's son, Ricardo del Rio. "We tried him out for the first time as a stud in 1994, when he was two years old. He was incredible." Every year, he has produced 30 to 40 calves, "in 90 per cent of cases improving the mother's characteristics".
Alcalde is now aged 16 and his legendary powers are flagging. So when Vitoriano del Rio met ViaGen's director Jose Cordoba at a world bull breeders' conference in Mexico, a solution became apparent. Mr Cordoba says his company has already produced identical breeding cattle for beef, as well as cup-winning thoroughbred race horses.
"It's a case of preserving and multiplying animals shown to have superior genetics," Mr Cordoba told yesterday's El Pais newspaper. "They will be used as reproducers, not for sacrifice or consumption." The cost of cloning a bull is around €12,000 (£9,000) – good value if it creates another Alcalde.
Mr Cordoba is due to visit Vitoriano del Rio's estates in Guadalix de la Sierra, north of Madrid, next month to take samples of Alcalde's tissue.
His scientists will take an egg from a cow and extract its nucleus, replacing it with the nucleus of a cell taken from Alcalde. The resulting cell will then be stimulated in the lab so that it starts to divide like an embryo. After a few days, the cell will be implanted into the cow and nine months later, if all goes well, a bull will be born with the same genetic material as its father. The plan will be to implant the cows in June, with the hope that Alcalde's offspring will arrive in March 2009. Ricardo del Rio hopes to create two or three clones, try them, and keep the best one for breeding. Those that fail to make the cut will die in the sand before a matador's sword.
Vitoriano wants only one cloned bull, not so much because too many Alcaldes might dilute the noble beast's unique value, but to avoid problems caused by in-breeding.