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These horses are two of a kind

An increasing number of equines are being cloned in the U.S., but the duplicates are prohibited from competing in breed-sanctioned events.

April 08, 2010|By Stephen Hudak

Reporting from Ocala, Fla. — The chestnut stallion was the love of Zarela Olsen's life.

A majestic hall-of-fame horse with personality and a copper coat bright as a new penny, Capuchino often greeted his fawning owner with kisses, nuzzling her neck and licking the back of her ears.

"When he died, he took my heart with him," said Olsen, 46, of the Paso Fino horse who died in Ocala, Fla., last year. "I could not stop crying and crying."

But Olsen had planned ahead, investing $160,000 in the replicating services of a biotech company specializing in the controversial practice of animal cloning. Her champion's genetic duplicate, Capuchino Forever, was born in May.

His birth -- and the increasing number of horses cloned in the U.S. -- has spawned debate and wonder among breeders and owners in the equine world, including here in Marion County, the self-proclaimed "Horse Capital of the World."

"They smell money," said Carol Harris, 86, the owner of Bo-Bett Farm near Ocala who has bred horses for about 60 years and is an outspoken opponent of cloning champions. "They're looking for a shortcut to a great horse."

Harris, whose American Quarter Horse stallion Rugged Lark won the title of Super Horse twice in the 1980s, said she fears horse owners someday may need patents for their champions instead of registration papers.

She said she doesn't oppose cloning in the name of science and equine health but also doesn't think it should be widespread, sanctioned or embraced by horse organizations, which aim to preserve and protect the breed.

"Breeding is an art," she said. "Cloning is just replication."

Powerful horse associations have enacted rules forbidding the registration of clones, a prohibition that prevents the animals from competing in breed-sanctioned events and lessens their stud value.

The Stud Book and Registration Committee of the American Quarter Horse Assn., which met last month at the association's convention in Kissimmee, Fla., nixed a proposed rule change that would have allowed registration of clones.

Cloning proponents say some opposition may be a result of ignorance.

"They're thinking it's growing Frankensteins in a lab, and that's simply not the case," said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for BIO, a 1,200-member organization of biotechnology companies.

Texas A&M University professor Katrin Hinrichs, a veterinarian and lead scientist on the team that in 2005 produced Paris Texas, the first cloned horse in North America, said the process involves live tissue cells taken from under the skin of a prized horse.

A horse owner, Hinrichs defended cloning as a powerful research tool that can help scientists find cures for diseases in horses and other animals by isolating and studying the effects of genetics and environment.

Italian scientists cloned the first horse in 2003, a mare named Prometea. About 65 equine clones now exist in the world, at least 50 of which were produced by ViaGen, a Texas-based biotech company, which Olsen used to clone Capuchino, who was crowned the Paso Fino Horse of the Millennium in 1999.

ViaGen spokeswoman Candace Dobson wouldn't disclose precisely how many cloned horses the company has produced. But the number is increasing.

The company, which is expecting the births of 50 more clones this year, has produced quarter horses, polo ponies, Arabians and thoroughbreds for athletic competitions that don't require breed-registration papers.

No one knows whether Capuchino Forever will mirror the success of the original, a horse who entertained crowds on two continents, sired more than 5,000 offspring at $3,500 per stud and possessed a gait so smooth, Olsen said, "you could sip a glass of wine aboard him and never spill a drop."

But Olsen experiences deja vu with her beloved horse's spitting image.

"The first time I saw him, I cried again," she said of the chestnut foal. "He even gave me two little licks behind my ears. I cried, 'Capuchino, it's you! You're back!' "

shudak@ orlandosentinel.com

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