Idaho Gem, the world's first cloned equine, is about to make his racing debut along with his duplicate copy--Idaho Star, another clone created from the same genetic material.
Born in 2003, the identical 3-year-old "miracle mules"--believed to be the first clones to ever compete in an athletic event--will make their first starts in Winnemucca, Nev., June 3-4 during time trials for the upcoming summer fair season. Then, they head to the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton, Calif., where they will race each other along with other mules in the kickoff of California's fair circuit in late June.
"They're boringly normal," said Dr. Gordon Woods, a member of the University of Idaho mule cloning project, as he watched the mules work over the Stockton track in a May 19 preview. "They've been the perfect picture of health since birth."
Both clones are closely related to retired world champion Taz, now 12 years old and best known for his battles with Black Ruby. The dark bay mules along with a cloned triplet named Utah Pioneer, who is headed for a career as a pack animal, were created from fetal skin cells taken from what would have been Taz's full brother. The sire is the Spanish donkey Coalee McGee, and the Quarter Horse dam is Mesmerizer. The clones were implanted and delivered by three surrogate mothers.
A six-year study, Project Idaho was a joint venture with Utah State University. Besides Woods, Dr. Dirk Vanderwall of Idaho and Dr. Ken White of Utah State were the key researchers. The trio got interested in cloning mules while studying the link between calcium levels and cancer.
"Prostrate or breast cancer is very rare in horses," Woods said. "They also have lower levels of calcium in their cells. A horse is a 1,000-pound mouse, but it's the right model for our research. We're now looking for partners so we can continue this work."
Don Jacklin, president of the American Mule Racing Association, helped bankroll the project. Jacklin, who also campaigned Taz, will race Idaho Gem. Roger Downey, another longtime mule owner, has leased Idaho Star and races him.
"What's so amazing is these clones will help lead to a cure for cancer," Jacklin said.
Said Downey: "They look like excellent young athletes, but now we'll find out if they have that desire to compete."
Jacklin said he has had "quite a few confidential inquiries" from Thoroughbred horsemen interested in the cloning process. "There has been a lot of interest," he said. "I predict we'll see significant changes in the next few years as organizations begin to address clones. But wouldn't it be great to see a cloned Cigar race a cloned Funny Cide or another John Henry? I believe it will happen in the future."