MAGINE a football match pitting 11 clones of Wayne Rooney against 11 more clones of the same spud-faced Manchester United striker. Even avid Wayne-watchers might find it a bit dull. But polo fans may one day be treated to something similar. No one is proposing to clone the stallions who wield the mallets, of course. But the stallions they sit on are another matter. Outstanding polo horses are hard to find and horribly expensive. Each world-class rider may have dozens, the best of which may cost more than $200,000 each.
So breeding great mounts is big business. It used to be hit-and-miss, but new technology is making it less so. In 2010 the world’s first cloned polo pony was born. The technique has since caught fire in Argentina, the global capital of professional polo. Adolfo Cambiaso, probably the world’s best player, has teamed up with Alan Meeker of Crestview Genetics, a Texan firm, to clone eight of his mounts.
The clones look and act like their “parents”. Dolfina Lapa, one of Mr Cambiaso’s star mares, is “meaner than mean”, says Mr Meeker. Her clones? “They’ll kick you, they’ll bite you…just like Lapa. It’s uncanny.”
Polo’s various governing bodies have approved clones for competition, but since polo horses seldom compete until they are five years old, no clone has yet been tested in a match. Buyers are undeterred. A three-month-old clone of Mr Cambiaso’s Cuartetera fetched $800,000 at auction in Buenos Aires—the most expensive sale in polo history.
Mr Meeker holds an exclusive licence to use a specific technique (the one used to create Dolly the Sheep in 1996) to clone horses that have been, or might be, used for polo. This licence is widely recognised, but not in Argentina, where a rival cloning firm, Kheiron Laboratories, began operations in March.
Cuartetera, et cetera
Mr Meeker is anxious not to “sell the factory”. He invited the Argentine executive who bought Cuartetera’s clone to form a partnership with Crestview instead of cloning the horse himself. The executive agreed and, despite being offered $2m for another Cuartetera, the partners pledged not to sell any more clones of the same horse. Instead they will channel some clones to competition, and sell the ovules and sperm of others to breeders. “The idea is not to have games where four Cuarteteras are playing four Cuarteteras,” insists Mr Meeker.
Crestview has created 60 clones so far, and Mr Meeker hopes to produce between 20 and 30 next year. That will not keep pace with demand, however: one eager player has requested 100 copies of the same horse. Kheiron, which can clone 10-20 horses a year, is booked solid through half of 2014. Firms that clone polo ponies are set to mint it.