On a clear Saturday afternoon in April, two sporting superpowers clashed at the National Polo Field in Palermo, Buenos Aires, as the home team faced England in round one of the 2016 Cup of Nations. Thundering hooves, cracking whips and cries of support echoed around the ground as England took an early lead, before being pegged back and eventually losing a tight encounter by ten goals to nine.
“This is the cathedral of polo,” says James Beim of the English side. “Buenos Aires is like Old Trafford or Wembley for us, so it’s always amazing to play here.”
Argentina has long been renowned for the passion of its fans, the skill of its players and the quality of its horses, which are sold around the world during auction season. Now, as well as investing in fresh blood or traditional breeding operations, polo pros and wealthy enthusiasts have a new option: hiring scientists to clone their best mounts.
The epicentre of the nascent cloning industry is Crestview Genetics, a laboratory in a nondescript bungalow on a sprawling estate near the city of Luján, about an hour outside Buenos Aires. The centre was founded by the Texan energy mogul Alan Meeker and Adolfo Cambiaso, an Argentine polo player regarded by many as the world’s best. A third partner, Ernesto Gutiérrez, provided his own land to build the lab.
The world’s first cloned horse was born in 2003 at a laboratory in Italy. Six years later, Cambiaso and Meeker started cloning polo ponies at ViaGen, a company in Texas, before opening Crestview in 2010. Those first polo clones, born in the US, have now reached maturity and been used by Cambiaso in competitive games, which frequently require players to ride an interchanging line-up of a dozen horses.
According to Crestview, ten copies have been made of Cambiaso’s fabled mare, Cuartetera – meaning that he may be able to field an entire team of the same horse within years.
“I would love to see Adolfo play eight chukkas at Palermo on eight Cuarteteras,” says Cambiaso’s friend and fellow player, Sebastián Merlos. “It’s his dream.”
“These are all our clones,” says Adrián Mutto, Crestview’s director, gesturing at a handful of horses grazing in the fields around his lab. “The crazy thing is that we see them when they are born from a cell, which comes from the neck of another horse.”
Crestview’s cloning technique is based on somatic cell nuclear transfer, a biotechnological method that Mutto has been developing for more than ten years. To clone a horse, frozen skin cells from the donor animal are implanted in ovaries which have been emptied of their original genetic data; the nucleus is sucked out of its egg with a microscopic syringe. When the replacement DNA sample has been inserted into the membrane of the ovary, the two elements are fused by an electric shock, which essentially brings the embryo to life.
After seven days of maturation, the modified embryo is transferred to a recipient mare – and, with a little luck, a clone is born 11 months later. In theory, at least.
“With cloning, two plus two isn’t always four,” says Mutto, who spent his first three years at Crestview struggling to produce results, “even though we already knew how to clone”.
Today, he says the lab has achieved a pregnancy rate of 30 to 40 per cent – with about one in ten pregnancies leading to a successful birth. Of the 200 to 300 ovaries processed in every cloning session, a certain percentage is lost at each phase of the somatic transfer cycle, meaning that about a third reach the final embryo transfer stage.
30 healthy clones have been born to date, with 40 more expected by the end of 2016
After birth, clones can experience problems including deformed joints or symptoms of depression. “Sometimes, they are born almost in a coma,” explains Alejandra Zampatti, a Crestview vet. “They’re alive, but in the most serious cases may not move, eat, or drink water, so you have to give them liquid food and oxygen because their circulation isn’t great.”
Nevertheless, around 30 healthy clones have been born to date, with 40 more expected by the end of 2016. Many of them are replicas of Cambiaso’s strongest horses, and will be used strictly for breeding horses to sell, rather than placed on the market themselves. A roster of 20-plus clients – largely other players – are also paying Crestview about $120,000 per animal.
Recent arrivals include a clone of Buenaventura, one of Cambiaso’s favourites, and five nearly identical Arab/quarter-horse crossbreeds used for endurance racing, which appeared to be in fine condition. Their owner had only ordered three.
Many polo players have taken interest, but some remain skeptical about the merits of cloning – still a relatively unproven technology – over more traditional breeding. Others fear the global market could become saturated by clones in future, bringing prices down to unprofitable levels.
“The fundamental thing about breeding is to mix different bloods, so you can make the product better every year,” says Merlos. “If we move totally to cloning, I’m a little scared that we may just end up with the same quality. It could stop evolution.”
Despite these doubts, Merlos is excited about the idea of integrating clones into standard breeding methods. “You know the mother of a superstar will give you another superstar,” he says. “I would make clones of [Argentine football player] Lionel Messi’s mother, rather than Messi himself.”
Several players told Raconteur they were waiting find out how Cambiaso’s latest batch of Crestview clones perform on the field before trying it themselves.
“It’s all unknown – like if they get injured or last a full life,” says England’s James Beim, who has preserved skin samples from a mare that died earlier this year. “Some people are of the opinion that cloning is against evolution,” he continued, “and it’s also very expensive, so only the top few players can do it.”
Beim’s teammate Charlie Hanbury, who runs a conventional breeding center that uses embryo transfer, has also saved cells from his favourite horses. “Morally, I don’t see the problem, and it seems like everybody’s doing it – so why not jump on board?” Hanbury said. “If you don’t do it, you could be left behind.”