Can you steal a few hairs from a racehorse and clone your own?

They clone horses, don't they?
Prometea, left, the world's first horse clone, nuzzles the hand of Italian scientist Cesare Galli as her mother Stella Cometa looks on.
Prometea, left, the world's first horse clone, nuzzles the hand of Italian scientist Cesare Galli as her mother Stella Cometa looks on.
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Before you put too much time and money into planning your big horsehair heist, there are a few issues worth considering. First, not every horse sired by a champion grows up to win a derby or two. Even with a clone, which would have one genetic parent instead of two, other factors besides genes go into making a champion. A great deal of a horse's success depends on its surroundings and individual training program.

However, if you successfully cloned a champion stud such as Fusaichi Pegasus, you'd potentially have quite a valuable horse on your hands. With the right training and a little bit of luck, you might even have a steed capable of pulling off a major win. Another card in your favor is the fact that humans have already successfully cloned horses.

In 2003, Italy's Laboratory of Reproductive Technology created the world's first successful horse clone, named Prometea, by fusing a skin cell from an adult mare with an empty egg. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. However, while the resulting foal was born healthy, she was also the culmination of 328 attempts to construct and implant an embryo [source: BBC News].

In 2005, the same scientists successfully cloned racing champion Pieraz. While the embryo success rate improved from 3 percent to 15 percent between the two cloning instances, the technique is still costly and continues to draw criticism based on the number of embryo deaths involved in the procedure [source: New Scientist].

­But even if you managed to successfully create a clone from a handful of ill-gotten hairs, you'd still have another obstacle in your path: the professional horse racing establishment. As you might imagine, Prometea's birth sparked considerable discussion in the horseracing world. Enthusiasts and breeders alike pondered a future where widespread cloning might lead to races populated entirely by genetically identical clones.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the spread of the muscle ailment hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). While the debilitating and potentially fatal condition is widespread among pedigreed quarter horses today, researchers have traced the genetic defect back to a single champion stallion named Impressive [source: UC Davis]. The documented lineages of many racehorses go back three centuries and, along the way, breeders have encouraged the best racing traits -- sometimes at the expense of genetic diversity. Some breeders fear that cloning would only further shrink the gene pool, sucking excitement out of the sport and profit out of the breeding industry.

For this reason, organizations such as North America's Jockey Club and the British Horseracing Board permit only natural breeding methods. This means no artificial insemination, and certainly no cloning. Even if you could successfully clone your thoroughbred racehorse, you'd come up against a brick wall the second you were asked to supply DNA proof of natural breeding. This would also prevent you from cashing in on the horse's stud potential.

We currently possess the technology to clone a a champion racehorse using just a few hairs and a lot of patience. Ensuring the clone is its parent's equal and proving it on the track is much less certain.

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