STOCKTON, Calif. – In a low-stakes mule race in a remote corner of the West, nature versus nurture will be put to the test as two of the horse family's earliest clones challenge naturally bred runners next month in Nevada.
It's not exactly the Kentucky Derby, but two cloned mules named Idaho Star and Idaho Gem will compete in a professional mule race in Winnemucca, Nev., where the professional mule racing season begins.
Idaho Star was the first animal from the horse family cloned and his brother, Idaho Gem, was the third. Both were born three years ago and carry identical DNA taken from a fetus produced by the same parents that sired a champion mule racer named Taz.
Because Gem and Star have been separated for two years and trained separately, watching how they perform against each other will offer insight into the role played by environmental variables, such diet and training regimens, in developing racing mules.
Though the jokes about the two clones finishing in a dead heat are legion, no one is expecting a tie. And just because they carry the DNA of a past champion, there's no guarantee the clones will be successful.
"We know they have the genetic capability to be great," said Don Jacklin, who leases Idaho Gem from the University of Idaho for about $1,000 a year. Jacklin has hired a professional mule trainer to prepare Idaho Gem for its racing debut.
"We don't know if they are going to have ... the attitude to want to run and want to compete and want to win."
Gordon Woods, the lead scientist who created the clones, declined to handicap their chances.
On Friday, the two cloned mules whinnied and ran like their naturally bred rivals working out with them at a Stockton track. Idaho Gem bolted and ran over his trainer's foot when a helicopter flew nearby. Star remained calm.
"There is nothing abnormal about these cloned mules," Woods said.
The mule cloning project also provides insight into human cancer research. Equines have significantly lower cancer rates than humans, a difference that can be illuminated by cloning and possibly lead to research clues.
But of more immediate import to the mules' handlers is what the animals could do for a minor sport that needs publicity to boost it out from the shadow of thoroughbred horse racing.
There are only about 70 mules competing on the California fair circuit, the most popular venue for the sport, because it offers only about $5,000 a race and a total of $500,000 in purse money throughout the summer. The Winnemucca races will be run in two heats and a final on June 2 and June 3.
Playing the part of mule racing's P.T. Barnum is Jacklin, an Idaho resident who leads the American Mule Racing Association and is the financial muscle behind the cloning project. He made a fortune selling grass seeds to golf courses, and he ponied up $400,000 of the $1 million in other grants it ultimately took to clone the two mules in 2002.
The team that created Idaho Gem won a global scientific race to be the first to clone an equine by two days, beating an Italian team. Since then, several more horse have been cloned, including the first two horses sold commercially, which were made by the Austin-based biotech Viagen Inc.
Several more cloned horses with paying customers are expected to be born this year. Most of the horses perform in "cutting" competitions, which test the animals' ability to herd.
Now, Jacklin hopes paying fans will turn out in greater numbers than usual to watch the clones compete against each other and naturally bred rivals. (Mules are usually produced by breeding a female horse with a male donkey and are usually infertile.)
"I see it as being a major draw card, people will come to see the clones," Jacklin said.
Jacklin is a principal investor in a company that is offering to commercially cloned horses, and he hopes to have his first customer next year.
But The Jockey Club, thoroughbred racing's governing body in North America, keeps an extremely tight rein on breeding practices. Only natural breeding methods are allowed, and club rules explicitly prohibit not only cloning, but also artificial insemination.
What's more, for the mules to remain a popular attraction, they will have to win.
"The clones will bring some additional hype," said Larry Swartzlander, director of California's horse racing at the county fairs. "This is a first in the industry, but for them to remain popular for more than a few races they'll have to perform."