I can clearly remember back to 1996 when Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned. Sci-Fi had turned to reality and now it’s transforming the sport of Polo.
In a copy of Rhapsody, Send in the clones, describes how cloning is dramatically changing the game of Polo.
If like me, you don’t know much about Polo, it has been dominated by Adolfo Cambiaso, who at the age of 22 started to make his mark. For the last 20 years has built up his reputation to be considered the planet’s greatest player.
Cambiaso leads La Dolfina who holds a record at the prestigious Triple Crown Championship for claiming 13 of 15 tournaments over the last five years. That string of victories includes five consecutive wins at both the Tortugas and Palermo Opens.
At Tortugas in 2017, Cambiaso scored 7 goals and his horses took best steed: Cuartetera B05, a beautiful brown horse with a white face who is a genetic clone of the original Cuartetera.
Where did Cambiaso’s cloning journey begin?
Cambiaso’s use of cloning is straight out of science fiction, he’s gathered a crack team of scientists and is revolutionizing the world of horse breeding for polo. In the 2016 Tortugas he played the entire team on six different Cuartetera, all were brown with a white stripe on their face.
“Galloping to glory with a whole team of clones of one horse was the culmination of a quest which Cambiaso has been obsessed with for a decade.” Bernas
In 2006 Cambiaso’s favorite stallion, Aiken Cura, had to be put down after breaking a leg. He decided to collect a few skin cells and put them into deep freeze.
Cloning wasn’t unheard of back then, in 2003 we started to see cloned farm animals but no one had attempted to do it with high priced polo ponies.
In 2009, Cambiaso was approached by Alan Meeker, an American energy mogul and polo enthusiast who heard Cambiaso was curious about cloning. Meeker wanted to grow his stable and sell horses for profit. The two went into business and tried to clone Aiken Cura at ViaGen, a Texas lab that clones livestock. A year later one of their first Cuartetera clones sold at auction for $800,000 – the highest price ever paid for a polo horse.
Ernesto Gutierrez, who purchased the first Cuartetera clone, had a better business model for Cambiaso and Meeker. Open a cutting-edge cloning center that leverages the need in the sport rather than loosing control of your primary asset, the clone. Gutierrez became their third partner and in 2010 he opened Crestview Genetics in Argentina.
Crestview, eventually established itself as a leading cloning center, now they not only works for Cambiaso but other polo players and horse breeders. The price to clone a horse is about $120,000.
A Look at Cloning in Polo
Cloning is a new science, Crestview’s technique is based on somatic cell nuclear transfer, developed by Dr. Adrian Mutto, the molecular biologist who runs the lab.
To clone a horse, frozen skin cells from the donor animal are implanted in manipulated ovaries. The nucleus of each egg is removed with a microscopic syringe, the replacement DNA is inserted, an electric shock brings the embryo to life.
After 7 days the modified embryo is implanted in the recipient mare. 200-300 ovaries are processed in each cloning session and only 1/3 reach this stage. If all goes well a clone is born 11 months later. Only one in 10 pregnancies results in a successful birth.
Why is cloning innovation coming from Polo?
Polo as a sport is doing nothing to regulate the use of clones in competition, which is in stark competition to thoroughbred racing which prohibits the practice.
In racing, an owner can be assured profits from a champion’s offspring because of strict controls of racing bloodstock. Polo hasn’t had the same level of documented control, after so many horses died in WWI the practice of keeping stud books was lost.
The Federal Cloning Association welcomes the use of cloning “it can only improve the supply of good quality ponies and, thus, the sport”.
What could go wrong?
What’s happening in polo right now is considered “artisanal” cloning, these techniques have not yet achieved mass production capabilities.
For polo, a whole team with only one horse means the DNA of the gene pool is shrinking. A handful of cloned animals could lead to negative features becoming more prominent in their offspring.
If the glass is half empty, this may be the end to evolution in the sport. Breeding is about improving year after year, the goals is to make the product better.
There is, of course, the ethical debate around cloning.
For Cambiaso he’s quieted the Cuartetera doubters who wondered at investing so much time and money into an unproven science. He is now using Aiken Cura clones to fathers new foals that are being trained for competition. Next, he hopes to clone a racehorse and breed it with polo horses.