Who would win a race between Secretariat, Seabiscuit and Man 'o War?
Those champion racehorses were separated by decades, but thanks to advances in science, it's now possible to extract DNA from their remains, clone them, and bring exact copies of the legendary champions back to life.
And that scenario may someday be possible, thanks to a landmark ruling in Texas last week, in which U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ordered the American Quarter Horse Association -- the world’s largest horse breeding and registry organization -- to allow cloned horses.
“Theoretically, could they clone the great American quarter horses? Sure, and that’s part of what the opposition is,” Tom Persechino, a spokesman for the AQHA, told FoxNews.com. “It’s not strictly for breeding purposes.”
To hear Jason Abraham, who won the lawsuit on Aug. 14, cloning is simply the latest in a long line of advances, from transfer of embryos to the use of frozen sperm to intracytoplasmic sperm injection -- all techniques that let breeders avoid genetic dead-ends and preserve valued traits.
'What made Secretariat so stunning was that he was a freak of nature, an alignment of genes so superb as to be the closest thing to perfection we are likely to ever see.'
“I’m probably the largest horse owner in the country, maybe in the world. And I’m always on the leading edge of reproduction -- and apparently they don’t like that,” Abraham told FoxNews.com.
Quarterhorses are different from thoroughbreds like Secretariat: They're raised for quick power and speed rather than endurance. Quarterhorse racing raised more than $300 million in wagers at U.S. racetracks in 2010; it’s the third-most popular form of horse racing, after thoroughbreds and standardbred racing horses.
After cloning them, it's a short leap to other animals. The procedure is now commonplace among cattle, Abraham said. Citing backers of the technology, NBC News said cloning will spread this year to rodeo competitions like barrel racing and reining, polo matches and equestrian events leading up to the 2014 Olympics.
The AQHA has numerous other reasons for its ban on cloning.
“Clones don't have parents. Cloning is not breeding,” reads a position statement on the group’s site. “Cloning doesn't improve the breed; it just makes Xerox copies of the same horses,” the group says.
Abraham sees it differently. He believes a powerful group of breeders that make up the AQHA see cloned horses not as way to sell the Morning Line, but as a threat to the bottom line.
“The good ol’ boys club, they syndicate stallions, like Corona Cartel,” he told FoxNews.com, citing a popular sire. “You got a $20 million stud there. … They don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry to breed the Corona Cartel.”
In addition, cloning could help breeders avoid problems that crop up when a single stud’s genes are constantly re-used, he said.
“We’ve got so many horses that are bred the same way, genetically, we’ve got these terrible diseases where the skin falls off the horse,” he said. For the disease called HERDA, or hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia, there is no cure.
“We bring back older genetics that are HERDA free … it just gives you a tool to go off in a different direction,” he said.
The AQHA disagrees, arguing that cloning could narrow the gene pool, resulting in the worsening of genetic diseases or the creation of new ones. Villanova University’s Angela DiBenedetto, an associate professor of biology and an expert on genetics and cloning, sides with the association.
“The process is very inefficient, with very low live-birth success rates, and of the successes, a high incidence of later developmental abnormalities, higher risks for some diseases and malformations, and abnormal gene expression patterns throughout life,” she told FoxNews.com. “We don’t know why that is.”
Independent companies like ViaGen nevertheless are already cloning horses, such as Royal Blue Boon, a producer of cutting horses owned by Elaine Hall of Weatherford, Texas. She had the horse cloned seven years ago.
“I simply could not imagine not being able to continue to breed this fine animal and improve the genetics of future generations of cutting horses,” Hall said. “If you don’t stay up with the latest technology, you are going to be left in the dust.”
But will the science ever advance to the point that Seabiscuit 2, 3 and 4 are lined up beside a row of Secretariats? The experts agree genetic copies wouldn’t necessarily be winners. There’s no gene for winning, after all.
“Think of identical human twins you may know,” DiBenedetto said. “They are alike in many ways, but not the same person.”
“If we could simply clone the best, and we stopped breeding horses, a great deal of the joy of the sport would be lost,” Hillenbrand told FoxNews.com. “We wouldn't see the wonders of genetics at work, and would no longer have the challenge of pairing one horse with another in hopes of creating an animal who bears the strengths of each.”
“So much of what made Secretariat so stunning was that he was a freak of nature, one in a billion, an alignment of genes so superb as to be the closest thing to perfection we are likely to ever see. What fun would there be in a crowd of Secretariats, if he were merely commonplace?”