Camilla Swift

Send in the clones

Prized polo ponies are already being reborn. It won’t be long before this is mass-market technology

Send in the clones
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How much do you love your dog? Do you secretly wish, as he or she grows older, that you could have another just the same? I’ll bet that tens of thousands of Brits feel this way — and soon their dreams could come true.

When most of us last thought about it, cloning was an off-putting and futuristic prospect. Dolly the sheep was the poster girl, and things didn’t turn out too well for her.

But times change, science creeps on, and last year a Brit called Rebecca Smith had her beloved dachshund, Winnie, cloned in South Korea. The going rate for Mini-Winnie would have been £60,000, but Rebecca won a competition and so — except for the obligation to appear in a TV documentary about the process — Mini came for free.

£60,000 sounds steep, but costs will almost certainly plummet, as they do with any new technology. And one reason we can be sure that cloning is the future is that it’s already very much in the present.

Cloning is banned in the racing world — there’s too much cash at stake, and too many opportunities for scams. But in polo, cloning a prized pony is becoming increasingly popular. One of the world’s top players, Adolfo Cambiaso, has cloned dozens of his favourite horses with great success. Cambiaso is so keen that he has become a partner in a cloning company, Crestview, which has its own laboratory near Buenos Aires. One day, he’s said, he’d like to play in an entire match that involves only cloned horses. They are turning out to be in hot demand. In 2010, a clone of one of Cambiaso’s best horses, Cuartetera, sold for $800,000.

Polo has set a precedent — and naturally other equestrian sports are clamouring to join in. The Olympics in Rio next year will theoretically be the first Games at which clones would be permitted to compete; equestrian sports’ governing body, the FEI, changed its rules in 2012. A clone of Tamarillo — the event horse who competed with William Fox Pitt at the Athens Olympics, and who died this summer — was born two years ago, and although he would be too young for 2016, Tomatillo would be more than ready by 2020.

Poor Tomatillo may never get the chance, though — because breeding’s where the money is. The original, Tamarillo, had been gelded and so couldn’t pass on his genes naturally. There’s every chance the clone, Tomatillo, will never even compete. Instead, he’ll be the sire Tamarillo couldn’t be.

Because of the cash involved, horses often pioneer fertility treatments that are later used in humans. The major breakthroughs in freezing sperm first came from the need to transport the seed of equine champions overseas. There’s even a story from the 1300s involving an Arab chief who stole semen from a stallion and used it to impregnate his own mare: the first artificial insemination. Embryo transfers were first carried out in horses in the early 1970s, so that a dam could continue her illustrious career undamaged by motherhood. This was almost a decade before the procedure was successfully used in humans. Back then embryo transfer was a controversial topic — people fretted and agonised over it, just as they do over cloning now.

Some worry that the clones of famous horses will be looked at simply as status symbols for the super-rich. You could own ‘a Cuartetera’ or ‘a Tamarillo’ in the same way that you can a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. But is that the real issue here?

More significantly, the success rate of cloning remains low, and animal-rights campaigners argue that the number of deformities, as well as the health problems that some clones still develop in later life, mean that it should be banned.

Then, even if all goes well and the technology advances, there’s the sporting argument. Is cloning an animal that you know has great potential a gentlemanly way of behaving? Isn’t it a little like betting on a certainty?

Cambiaso and his team hope so. ‘She is not like Sage — she is Sage,’ his right-hand man, Pablo Spinacci, has said of one of their clones. ‘She is the same, they are the same.’

Interestingly, Rebecca Smith doesn’t agree. Perhaps because Mini the cloned dachshund spent her first months in a lab, her character is ‘slightly different’ from her mother’s. Mini is less laid back, says Rebecca.

Even so, as the cost of cloning plummets, a significant market is bound to emerge here. A dog, it turns out, is not just for life, but potentially for ever.