This week at the London Olympics, a German horse called Sam rode off with the gold in the individual equestrian eventing final. His performance was stellar, and now we're left with a new question: Will breeders clone Sam in an attempt to re-create his ride? s
In July 2012 the Féderation Equestre Internationale (FEI) lifted a ban on cloned horses and their progeny competing in the Olympic Games. Deep-pocketed breeders can now try their hand at copying a favorite horse to take a second shot at glory. But cloning isn't easy, it isn't cheap, and there are no guarantees that the clone will match the talent of the original.
The first successfully cloned horse, a mare called Prometea, was born in 2003. Today, there are only a few hundred equine clones, created mainly for breeding, not competing. The cloning process can cost more than a hundred thousand U.S. dollars.
By comparison, semen from a top stallion for in vitro fertilization can go for tens of thousands of dollars—a relative bargain compared to cloning. The catch is that most male horses in high-level competitions are geldings, castrated to render them more cooperative. And a mare can bear only so many foals—perhaps 15 if she's particularly fertile.
(Also see "Champion Horse Cloned by Texas Breeder.")
According to Graeme Cooke, veterinary director for the FEI, the most common use for cloned horses is to perpetuate genetic material. The original horse can travel and compete, while its copy becomes a full-time foal-making machine.
In 2007 the FEI's general assembly decided that cloning was "potentially against the spirit of sport in that it was unfair," Cooke said. A key factor in the decision was the high price of cloning, which has since come down.
Cloning "No Unfair Advantage"
FEI recently took a second look. In analyzing cloned horses, the federation determined that the clones were only 98 percent copies of the originals. It had long been accepted that a clone is not an exact replica, but the error margin of a full 2 percent was what ultimately caused the FEI to overturn the ban.
In addition to that 2 percent genetic difference, it's widely agreed that environment, training, nutrition, and relationship with the rider have an incalculable impact on the horse's performance, so the powers that be felt comfortable that they weren't opening the door for an Olympic Games full of identical rides.
"Cloning was no unfair advantage," Cooke said. In other words, a clone of a champion was not guaranteed to perform like that champion.
So while all the horses that competed in the 2012 Olympics had been conceived in the biblical sense, that might not be the case in, say, 2020. Horses are eligible for the Olympics once they turn 9, clones included.
Secretariat vs. Secretariat vs. Secretariat?
The cloning of champion athletes is a divisive subject on the competitive circuit. The American Quarter Horse Association won't allow clones. Neither will the Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbreds in North America.
"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."
(Read "Kentucky Horse Country" in National Geographic magazine.)
The FEI has been careful to emphasize that cloning is a breeding technique only—they will never allow processes that might select certain genes over others in an attempt to create a superhorse.
"You can't stop progress," David Morley, chair of the U.K.'s Hurlingham Polo Association pony-welfare committee, told Horse and Hound magazine in 2010. "You just have to monitor the situation and make sure it's not detrimental to the horses or the sport."
But just because the Olympics now permit cloned competitors doesn't mean we'll ever have any, or even one. With only 300-odd horses competing in the Olympics, clones have to battle their way to the top just as traditionally bred horses do.
"We may never see cloned horses in the Olympics," Cook said. "But now it's possible. It depends on chance, just like anything else."
Meanwhile, one thing is certain in the murky world of cloning: It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a swim team made up of Michael Phelps clones.