While our Association’s Rule Book is replete with references to racing, those rules only apply at fairs. Pari-mutuel racetracks all operate under the regulation of their respective state’s commission. In this regard the USTA’s racing rules are, at most, suggested guideposts to commissions in the development and promulgation of their own rules of harness racing.
The principal function of our Association is that of the country’s Standardbred breed registry. Rule 26 of our Rule Book exhaustively details the requirements for Standardbred registration and related matters. For example, special sections involving artificial insemination (§26.06); embryo transfers (§26.24); parentage verification (§26.22; §26.25; §26.26) and the registration of twin foals (§26.21) are all embodied in the rule.
Click Here: for the on-line version of the U.S.T.A. Rule Book:
Additionally, there are sections of the rule that deal with prohibitions that prevent the registration of a foal as “Standard.” Consider that a foal which is the product of “sperm sorting” is not able to be registered as Standard, despite the Standardbred lineage of its sire and dam (§26.30). Sperm sorting is a scientific technique that allows for the selection of sperm cells that will fertilize the egg. It is commonly used to assure that the resulting foal is of a certain gender.
Another prohibition is contained in section 26.29. The language is simple and straightforward:
§ 26.29 Prohibition Against “Cloning.”—A foal resulting from the process known as “cloning” shall not be eligible for registration.
Why such a prohibition? It would appear intuitively obvious that cloning would lead to the end of the sport and industry as we know it. Yet, that reality did not prevent a Texas federal court from issuing a mandatory injunction (an order to do something) last month that requires American Quarter Horse Association (“AQHA”) to register foals produced by cloning, as well as their progeny.
The mandate was the result of a jury verdict rendered in late July that found the AQHA in violation of the Federal Sherman Antitrust Act. In the jury’s view, not allowing the plaintiff in the case, a major horse owner, to register a horse he produced as a result of cloning, the AQHA had engaged in an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of the Act. In light of the verdict, Federal District Court Judge Mary Lou Robinson issued her ruling, and reinforced it in late August when she denied the AQHA’s motion seeking to overturn the verdict as having no legally sufficient basis.
Judge Robinson’s injunction not only declares the AQHA’s ban monopolistic and forces the body to accept clones into its registry, but also instructs them to make rules that will accommodate the registrants of clones. For instance, if DNA testing confirms that the horse matches the DNA of a horse already admitted to the registry, the clone is to receive its own unique registration number. Nor may clones be discriminated against, or excluded in any way from AQHA-sanctioned activities.
Not surprisingly, the AQHA has vowed to appeal the ruling. Possibly complicating the AQHA’s appeal is the fact that both the National Cutting Horse Association and the Fédération Equestre Internationale, which oversees international equestrian events including the Olympics, allow clones to compete.
Horses were first cloned a decade ago. The most popular process for achieving a clone is known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” Rather than the use of a stallion and a mare, the horse is produced by removing the nucleus from a cell of an existing horse. The nucleus is then introduced to an egg cell which has been washed of its own genetic matter. The egg is then placed into a surrogate mare. Since the resulting foal’s chromosomes come entirely from the somatic cell, it is identical to, or very closely replicates the genetic marks of the somatic cell donor. In practice, the process is not as easy, or as successful, as the description implies.
So, what’s the problem with cloning? The better way to phrase the question is: What isn’t a problem with cloning?
First, rather than improve the breed through carefully crafted matches based upon the traits exhibited by the lineage of two distinct, though somewhat inbred families, cloning simply produces a replica or, more than likely, multiple replicas of what has already been produced. Rest assured, nobody is going to clone a claimer. Presumably, the market place will restrict the cloning process to the somatic cells of multiple stakes winning donors. Thus, only the top quality horses will be cloning candidates. Expect virtually every sire line other than a select few to be discontinued. Expect also the cloning of only a select few mares.
Imagine an auction catalogue where the first 15 hip numbers describe bay yearling colts, each with identical pedigrees; that of their common somatic cell donor. Distinctiveness will only be found in the identity of the owners (do we dare call them breeders?) and the consignors. Without the need to examine pedigree, each will be judged on conformation which, given both genetic identity and similarities in animal husbandry, might prove to be distinctive without much difference.
Moreover, consider that the recognized lack of genetic diversity in our closed breed led our Association’s directors to place strict limitations on the number of mares bred to a stallion (§26.07). The theory is that certain genetic diseases might be prevented by the placement into service of a broader range of stallions that would not otherwise frequent the breeding shed. In effect, cloning goes in the other direction, as the creation of multiple replicas of the same horses will eventually further limit the gene pool.
Consider that each clone shares identity only with the donor; if done correctly, the unfertilized egg carrying the donor cell’s nucleus has no genetic identity of its own. Thus, when Stallion A is traditionally bred to Mare B, Foal C is the result. C has traits of both A and B, but has its own unique identity given the fact that it has been created from the meshing of genetic material from two separate animals. Here’s how it works with cloning: Donor A creates Replica A over and over and over again.
Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell, was created in 1996. Forays into equine cloning didn’t show success until 2003. In effect, cloning horses remains uncharted territory.
Ballyhooed scientific advances intended to progress the health and wellbeing of humans produced the Dalkon Shield, a contraception device; Vioxx, a non-steroidal pain reliever; Fen-Phen, an anti-obesity drug and aspirin intended for children. Each of these proved to be an unmitigated disaster that actually caused death in several instances. Without a broad, long term analysis over several “generations” of clones, it’s clear that the risks of disease susceptibility, genetic mutation and other maladies and conditions cannot be properly assessed. Why would associations want to admit clones into their respective breed registries without some elongated track record exhibiting freedom from these concerns?
What is plainly apparent and requires no study is the dramatic economic shift cloning would create in the industry. Breeding farms with vast acreage, each with hundreds of stalls for mares; stallion barns; breeding sheds… would all eventually be rendered anachronistic. As the cost of cloning becomes more and more reasonable, there would be less and less demand for traditionally bred horses.
Instead of paying breeders, horse owners would simply peruse the available floor models, place their orders and await shipment. The horse industry would degenerate into something akin to the auto industry. Instead of ordering a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, the purchaser would order a Somebeachsomewhere or a Deweycheatumnhowe and, like an auto purchaser, end up with an exact make, model and color as all other purchasers received.
Consider, then, the natural progression of the cloning phenomenon. Assume 8 cloned horses that are the exact replicas of Rainbow Blue (“RB”) make the races. RB1 and RB2 are consistent breakers; RB3 is a fractious gate horse; RB4 and RB5 have chronic respiratory issues; RB6 contracted mild laminitis, but recovered; RB7 is a cribber; RB8 retired with a record of 19-1-1 from 22 starts and earned a few million dollars. In the breeding realm, each of these mares would eventually have a date with one or more stallions. In the cloning realm, only RB8 is cloned, and cloned repetitive times. In multiple series, this game of survivor eventually would pyramid the breed into only a handful of selected Standards. Once traditional breeding, and the diversity it produces, dies, there’s no getting it back.
From another perspective, the fan base has the right to see unique horses continuously compete. Su Mac Lad, Most Happy Fella, Bret Hanover, Tarport Hap and Windsongs Legacy were all greats in their time. They are also all dead, and, with due respect for the sensitivities of their connections and fans, they should remain dead. They had their time in the sun, and then some. Now is not their time, but the time for others to shine.
Reportedly, folks are now cloning dogs and cats as identical replacements for their beloved pets. Yet, while the clone of Fido is physical replacement, does it truly provide a mental and emotional substitute for Fido, or simply produce an offshoot of the psychiatric condition known as complicated grief disorder, allowing the owner to never fully come to terms with and accept the pet’s death, even to the extent of fallaciously believing that Fido is still alive? In effect, cloning provides sanction for one to never let go of what is gone; and that’s just not a good thing.
Why should we fail to grasp that what yesterday brought us was special, and that what tomorrow will bring us will also be special? In truth, the harness racing industry consistently does just that. It’s exhibited when we put an old campaigner in the Hall of Fame, or pension a beloved, but aged stallion. It’s also exhibited when a breeder painstakingly selects a stallion for her mare and when a horseman is the last to raise his hand in the sales ring. We revere the exploits of our past stars, and dream of creating new ones through selective breeding. The good traits of today are a launching pad for better traits of tomorrow. More speed, better conformation and physiology, smarter horses with better intelligenceare contributing to the Standardbred of tomorrow, not a repeat of yesterday over and over.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare tells us; “What’s past is prologue,” meaning that history sets the stage for the present. In context, Speedy Crown has set the stage for present day trotters who are his lineage. Yet, what’s past is but prologue for the present; the past is never the present. In effect, cloning simply muddles the lines between past, present and future, creating a virtual equine Twilight Zone.
Unfortunately, Pandora is well out of the box. Our Association’s directors had the foresight to know this day would come. Cloning science is no longer science fiction; it’s here to stay, and as time goes by, will become a process more efficient and less costly. The question of an antitrust lawsuit being brought against all resistant animal breed registries, including our own, is not if, but when. Taking reasonable steps to ensure the longevity of our Standardbred breed and breeders is our obligation, and is hardly monopolistic. Hopefully subsequent judges and juries will see it that way.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.