Racing: Why not do a Dolly with Dancing Brave?

Greg Wood examines the implications for the horseracing and breeding industries of the successful cloning of a sheep
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The Independent Online
A great deal has happened in the outside world since the gentlefolk of Britain first started to refine the thoroughbred racehorse more than 300 years ago. Waterloo, for example, the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, votes for women and men on the moon, although, admittedly, some or all of this may be news to the more sheltered members of the breeding community.

Science, meanwhile, has produced Darwinism, genetics and, only last week, the announcement of the first clone of an adult mammal. Yet the methods employed on stud farms have barely changed since the time of the Darley Arabian and Diomed.

And why should they? The bringing together of stallion and mare is not a process which involves a great deal of coercion, and those in charge of the operation would rightly argue that as a general rule, nature is best left to get on with things. Whether that belief will survive much beyond the millenium, however, must now be in serious doubt, as advances on several scientific fronts hold out the promise - some might say threat - of a revolution in both racing and breeding.

The Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, for instance, is part of a worldwide project to map the equine genome, which effectively means that, in the big instruction book of how to make a horse, researchers may eventually know the position of every comma and full stop. This will give them the power to correct its "spelling mistakes", the genetic abnormalities which cause inherited diseases, while breeders and potential owners might also take a close interest in any genes, or more probably combinations of genes, which appear to confer an advantage on the track.

At present, the research is concentrating on health issues rather than those which directly influence racing performance, but as Ernie Bailey, a professor at the University of Kentucky and the Equine Genome Project's international co-ordinator, points out, already there are implications for both owners and breeders.

"Many horses which turn out to be useless may do so because they develop a health problem with a genetic component," Bailey says. "The shame for the breeders and owners is when there is a horse that wants to run, that has athletic ability, but doesn't do it because of a health limitation, that's why the emphasis for our research is on health rather than performance per se.

"Down the line, a map could conceivably be used for identifying traits related to performance, but there's probably a complex set of genes which are doing it, and some of them may be operating in opposition to one another. There might be five different ways to make a stayer, and six to make a sprinter. Mapping may simply reinforce things which the breeders already know, and allow them to make decisions with a little more information."

The painstaking work of Bailey and his colleagues around the world is not the sort of thing which makes the headlines. The arrival of Dolly the cloned sheep, by contrast, took even many specialists in the field by surprise, and now that the enormous technical obstacles to cloning an adult mammal have been overcome in one species, there can be little doubt that the technique could also work with horses. Indeed, financial incentives are now the driving force behind many advances, and the situation in which a slow horse can be worth pounds 400 and a Derby winner pounds 15m would seem to offer unusually fertile ground for further research.

The possibilities are obvious, if fanciful. A small army of Dancing Braves or Lammtarras or the chance to reproduce talented but long-since gelded steeplechasers, even a race pitting all the surviving Derby winners against each other as three-year-olds. In practice, however, there are several solid reasons why such scenarios remain a distant prospect, not least the fact that, as Bob McCreery of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association pointed out yesterday, "I suspect that you would be in very deep water legally if you were racing an animal that was a clone."

McCreery is the chairman of a TBA committee which is investigating the use of artificial insemination in thoroughbred breeding, which is currently banned by international agreement between the major racing nations. "Scientific advance always has to be looked at objectively," he says, "and the effects they might have considered. We're doing exactly that with AI, which is a long way ahead of cloning, but though it's a different subject, I suspect it is a rather similar discussion. AI happens already with Arab horses, there are Arab stallions in Cambridgeshire which are covering mares in California, but there could be very serious financial implications if it was allowed ad lib. There are difficulties over the number of mares which could be covered, depreciation and so on. It's a highly emotive subject."

A lifting of the ban on AI would, among other things, permit top stallions such as Sadler's Wells to perform procreative feats which might otherwise turn him prematurely grey. And it would also, many believe, inevitably open the door to other ground-breaking techniques.

"For AI you can realistically read artificial breeding," Hamish Anderson, the Weatherbys director with responsibility for the stud book, said yesterday. "I suspect that if the ban was lifted, you would also be lifting it on other forms of artificial breeding such as embryo transfer, and what the advent of the cloning of the sheep will do is make people think in a wider sphere

"Embryo transfer means two things. You can either take a fertilised egg from one animal and put it in another so that the recipient carries on gestating quite normally, or give an animal an injection so that it superovulates and produces more than one egg, then you flush them out and implant one in each of the recipients. At present the techniques are better in cattle than horses, but once technology is produced, it's always going to improve, just as cloning would."

Anderson believes that "ultimately, the industry has to decide whether it wants to go with that particular flow or control the flow a bit. All these things have a definite purpose when you want the same product, but some people plain like variety, and racing thrives on variety. All these things have to be thrown into the melting pot before you decide whether you want cloning or not." Britain's racehorse breeders, it seems, will be doing things their way for a little while yet.

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