WINNEMUCCA, Nev. – Two qualifying heats, two wire-to-wire victories, two nearly identical times. It was almost like the same mule won twice. Idaho Gem, the world's first equine clone, and his brother, Idaho Star, made successful debuts Saturday in what scientists billed as the first professional competition between clones of any kind.
The mules will compete against each other — and six naturally bred animals — for an $8,500 purse in the finals of their bracket Sunday at the 20th annual Winnemucca Mule Race, Show & Draft Horse Challenge.
Idaho Gem covered his 350-yard sprint Saturday in 21.817 seconds, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over five rivals. Idaho Star was less than three hundredths of a second faster, finishing in 21.790 seconds to win by a half length over four competitors.
"For both to win first, it is awesome," said Don Jacklin, an Idaho businessman who helped finance the cloning project. "I think it is going to open a lot of eyes as far as cloning. I think the race experience will go a long way to show what cloning can do."
The clones were born three years ago and carry identical DNA taken from a fetus produced by the same parents that sired a champion mule racer.
Researchers on the cloning team said Idaho Gem and Idaho Star have been separated for two years and trained separately, so watching how they perform against each other will offer insight into the role played by environmental variables, such as diet and training regimens, in developing mules.
Gordon Woods, the University of Idaho scientist who created the clones, said he was pleased the clones passed their first major test. He noted that the historic cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 decreased her strength and agility.
"It says to me very clearly that the technology by which we cloned them appears to have not decreased their athletic performance," Woods said. "For me, it was a huge milestone achievement on a long uphill climb."
A record crowd of 1,000 stood and cheered Saturday as the mules raced down the stretch of an oval dirt track in front of a wooden grandstand in the rural Western town where members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch robbed a bank in 1900.
Ron Roark, 62, of Reno, placed $5 bets on each clone to win, picking up $9.50 for Idaho Star and $8 for Idaho Gem.
"I wanted both to win because I'm a techie geek and I like the fact that techie geeks are making advances on cloning," Roark said. "A lot of good to human health can come as a result of it."
Bill Sims, 55, of Winnemucca, said he bet against the clones "to prove nature knows best."
"I have doubts about cloning," he said.
Winnemucca, about 160 miles northeast of Reno, is the first stop on a professional mule racing circuit that will shift to county fairs in California through the summer. A mule is the usually sterile offspring of a donkey father and a horse mother.