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Friday 20 April 2018

Showjumping great Cruising's clones unveiled

The great showjumping stallion Cruising has been successfully cloned and the two clones will be covering mares themselves this year

Cruising (left) and one of his two clones, Cruising Arish. Cruising died five days later on September 7
Cruising (left) and one of his two clones, Cruising Arish. Cruising died five days later on September 7

Siobhán English

The loss of the great show jumping stallion Cruising last September had been felt across the globe, with owner Mary McCann and her family receiving hundreds of messages of condolences in the weeks that followed.

On the same day of his death, September 7, Cruising was laid to rest in his old paddock where he had lived for his entire 29 years.

Little did the general public know however, that, just yards away happily grazing in adjacent paddocks were his two clones - Cruising Arish and Cruising Encore.

For many years owner Mary McCann had received numerous requests to clone this great horse, but Mary admits that the cost alone, some €100,000 per animal, had been prohibitive. It was only in 2010 when a cloning services company in the States offered to take DNA samples for free, that she finally agreed to go ahead with this costly project.

"It was around the time of the World Games in Kentucky and our friend Nadia Cook had heard about it. We agreed to try it and biopsies from Cruising were taken in 2011." From there the long process of cloning this legend began.

Using the biopsies, Cruising's cells were cultured. DNA from those cells was transferred into eggs, from which the genetic material had been removed. The resulting embryos were grown in an incubator for several days then transferred to recipient mares using a traditional embryo transfer process.

After the normal gestation period of 11 months, Cruising's two clones carrying identical bloodlines (Sea Crest - Mullacrew) were born.

On Cruising's untimely death in September, Mary contemplated going public with the story, but decided to wait until this past weekend, ahead of the new breeding season.

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"They are growing into fine horses and it is uncanny how like Cruising they are - looks, mannerisms, everything. We felt that this was the next thing after AI and embryo transfer. We will treat them as normal horses and they will be covering mares this year like normal stallions. We've already had a lot of interest in them."

The issue of cloning animals has been a controversial one over the years and cloned horses, in particular, have come under intense scrutiny.

Since the birth of the well-documented first ever clone, Dolly the Sheep in 1996, it is believed some 200 different animals have actually been cloned. It is estimated that more than 110 horses were cloned in 2010.

In 2003, the world's first cloned horse, a Hafflinger mare named Prometea, was born in Italy. This came after numerous previous failed attempts using some 840 embryos. Some months earlier the successful cloning of a mule, the first ever equine, was recorded in the US.

While Prometea has since gone on to be a broodmare, the cloning of high-profile geldings and stallions in the past decade has opened an entirely new debate on the issue.

One of these is the US thoroughbred gelding Gem Twist. Similar to Cruising, he had an incredible career in show jumping, but, having been gelded at a young age, was never able to sire any offspring like Cruising did during his long career at stud.

Gem Twist died in November 2006, but by then work had already begun in cloning him as part of an experiment. Later the French genetic bank, Cryozootech, revealed they had used frozen cells to produce two stallions, Gemini and Murka's Gem.

Gemini was foaled in 2008. He now stands at his breeder Frank Chapot's farm in New Jersey. In 2012 he sired his first offspring.

Murka's Gem, meanwhile, is currently standing at stud in England with Olympic show jumper Peter Charles, having been purchased by the rider's main owner Olga White as a yearling in 2012.

Commenting on a recent documentary on horse cloning aired on Sky Sports, Peter Charles said: "In my opinion in the past decade there hasn't been a good thoroughbred in a breeding programme, and so Gem Twist was the one to do it with. To recreate that is a little different and I would defy anyone who says he's not a normal horse."

Similarly, leading British event rider William Fox-Pitt is looking forward to competing the clone of his Burghley and Badminton winning ride, the gelding Tamarillo.

Named Tomatillo, the cloned gelding was foaled in 2013 following the procedure carried out in the US at the request of owners MW and Finn Guinness.

"I was in disbelief really when I heard about it first and thought it was well out of reach, but the owners of Tamarillo are amazing people."

While Fox-Pitt and Charles are rather excited about the future prospects for their two clones, fellow British show jumper Tim Stockdale honestly believes that cloning is not good for equestrian sport.

"If cloning does become quite successful what it will do is see the big spenders in our equestrian industry cornering the market. I can't see that being a wonderful thing to be honest.

"Furthermore character development is not just about breeding, and a lot of what happens in equestrian sport comes down to training and environment."

Like many others competing at the top, Stockdale is also concerned at the decision of the international governing body, the FEI, to overturn a ban on cloned horses competing at Olympic level.

In 2007 the FEI's general assembly decided that cloning was "potentially against the spirit of sport in that it was unfair."

However, on analyzing cloned horses, they determined that the clones were only 98pc copies of the originals. The error margin of a full 2pc was what ultimately caused the FEI to overturn the ban.

In contrast, racing's governing body, The Jockey Club, has no intention of reversing the current ban on cloned thoroughbreds being allowed run on a racetrack.

Lord Winston, a professor of Fertility Studies at the Imperial College in London, believes that cloning racehorses would never work. "If you wanted to make a super racehorse you wouldn't do it by cloning, because you are still dealing with what you had originally. What you really need to do is enhance the very elements that make that animal super-strong," he said.

Whether or not the business of cloning racehorses ever spreads across from the sport horse world remains to be seen.

But for now, the legacy of Cruising and a select number of his fellow sporting legends is set to continue in this way.

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