Only seven years ago, Mark Watring and his dapple-grey Holsteiner, Sapphires’ many successive international Grand Prix wins initiated a flood of breeding inquiries. Sapphire, a classic, solidly put-together Warmblood , seemed to intuitively know that leaping the standards, untouched, was critical . But, given that he was a gelding and not a stallion, it looked like his jumping prowess could not be passed on. That, was before cloning passed from “Dolly the sheep” experimentation to the highly controversial subject, it is, today.
Fast-forward to 2008, when Mark partnered with Kathleen McNulty of Replica Farms, which represents Austin, TX-based ViaGen, the company responsible for the first U.S. cloned performance horses (clones of cutting horse Royal Blue Boon) in 2005. If their venture to clone Sapphire is successful, it will be the first cloned show jumper born in the United States. (A clone of legendary U.S. show jumper Gem Twist was born in France two years ago.)
“When I was a biology major in college, this stuff wasn’t even in the textbooks,” says Mark, who co-owns Sapphire with Dr. and Mrs. John Bohannan. “When this came up I thought if I could clone Sapphire I would get a stallion and be able to have the breeding program that I never thought was possible.”
How It Works
Several biopsy-type plugs of tissue were taken from Sapphire’s neck, from which cells were extracted and harvested for their genetic material. The DNA-bearing nucleus of each extracted cell was then placed into unfertilized eggs that had had their nuclei removed. The newly fertilized eggs containing Sapphire’s DNA were then stimulated to develop into embryos and placed into surrogate mares. More than one egg was developed and each viable embryo was placed into a different surrogate to increase chances of a successful clone carried to term. As of press time, two surrogate mares had successfully carried Sapphire’s clones past the first 90 days of pregnancy. If all goes well, Mark will be faced with the mind-boggling fact of having not one but two Sapphire clones when the mares come to term this fall.
Fast-forward six to eight more years and Mark could quite possibly be the first person to ride a cloned show jumper into the ring. Most breed associations are on the fence about whether to accept clones into their registries, and the Jockey Club has prohibited clones entirely. Thus, cloned racehorses are, for now, blocked from registration and racing, but in show jumping the rules are different. All horses are allowed to compete, which opens the doors for clones.
Cloned show jumpers of competition age are truly uncharted territory as of now; the science is just that new. The idea excites Mark, “I find it fascinating, intriguing and interesting,” he says. “It will be interesting to see the different personalities of the colts, the impact that their mothers have on them while they are foals. Will they be the same size, or have the same markings as Sapphire? I can’t wait to find out.”
It will also be interesting to see how cloned horses stand up against their “traditionally” bred counterparts, and how well their famous DNA translates to ability. Great talent usually comes from a combination of superior genetics and environment, and the nature versus nurture debate will inevitably follow these offspring throughout their lives.
Should both clones be successfully delivered to term, Mark tentatively plans to save one colt for breeding and train one for competition. No one will know until that stallion steps into the ring just how much of Sapphire’s talent will have been replicated with his genetics.
Mark got the ride on his now 17-year-old star when Sapphire was just 6, and has trained him throughout his Grand Prix career. Sapphire’s clone will need the same world-class training program that Sapphire benefited from to be successful. By all intents and purposes, Mark knows what to do and “nurturing” the clone to similar Grand Prix success will be in his hands.
Sapphire’s clone, Saphir, has hit the ground. Via Gen and Replica Farm are working with Waring to see if Saphir has the same out-of-this-world spring that Sapphire does. We’ll keep you posted.
Mark Watring is based in Hidden Valley and is a regular competitor on the West Coast Grand Prix circuit. In 2003, Mark and Sapphire won individual gold in show jumping at the Pan American Games. To find out more, visit www.markwatringstables.com.
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