Mule Clones Head for the Races

University of Idaho mule clones Idaho Gem and Idaho Star are headed for the races.

But first the pair must complete nearly a year of training before they actually reach a racetrack in 2006. That's when the two clones will begin to prove their fitness to race and to address the debate about whether genetics or environment makes for winners.

The university leased the clones to businessmen Don Jacklin of Post Falls, Idaho, and Roger Downey of Albuquerque, N.M., who serve as president and vice president respectively of the American Mule Racing Association.

"When Don came and loaded them up, the students who have worked with them and I stopped for a minute and thought about the adventures we've had along the way," said Dr. Dirk Vanderwall, University of Idaho (UI) assistant professor of equine reproduction and a veterinarian.

The interest in the clones remains high. As the featured banquet speaker during the Idaho Academy of Science annual meeting, Vanderwall spoke recently about the cloning project's implications for human health research.

"I heard several attendees comment that it was the best presentation of the whole meeting," said Dwight Wray of Brigham Young University-Idaho who served as the group's awards program coordinator.

Idaho Gem was the first clone born into the horse family on May 4, 2003. A mule is a hybrid, born of a donkey father and horse mother.

A report of the cloning project's success in Science Magazine by Dr. Gordon Woods, a UI animal and veterinary science professor and Northwest Equine Reproduction Laboratory director; Ken White, a Utah State University animal science professor, and Vanderwall made international news.

Two more mule clones were born to different surrogate mares in following months. Utah Pioneer was born June 9, and Idaho Star was born July 27. All three clones, essentially identical triplets, carry genetic material from identical fetal mule skin cells.

The mule clones attracted more international attention in February 2004 while appearing during Family Science Day during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in downtown Seattle.

The mules' experiences around crowds there and previously at fairs and other displays served as excellent education, Jacklin said.

Utah Pioneer will remain on campus, the lone clone but not alone. "We've already had several school groups come and see him since Gem and Star left," Vanderwall said.

The added attention and the lack of distractions from his stable mates also led Utah Pioneer to become more focused on people, Vanderwall said.

He had been the most reticent to seek attention of the three.

The mules were seasoned travelers and well-used to handling, Jacklin said. "Fortunately all of the good handling by students on campus and a lot of experience with people paid off. Their trainer said they did very well. She said they were just no problem, easy to get along with."

The next 10 months will be devoted to basic training, Jacklin said, getting the clones more used to handling, the saddle, and carrying a rider.

"It's an honor to be involved with these animals and the university," Downey said.

Jacklin chose to train Idaho Gem for one overriding reason. "I wanted the first."

Jacklin will have two 2-year old mules in training this year. Racing at least one of the clones has been considered one test of the clones' DNA and athletic ability.

Jacklin sees the clones, and specifically Idaho Gem and Idaho Star, as potentially the best of the bunch. "I was just so impressed by them, their attitudes, the width of their chests and their temperament, and, of course, their genetics."

Jacklin and Downey have been friends and competitors for many years.

The ultimate test will be between training methods, Jacklin believes, because the genetic makeup of the animals is as closely matched as possible.

Asked which had leased the brighter prospect to win the first race between the two brothers next year, Downey laughed long and hard. "I think Idaho Star has it. I saw the twinkle in his eye when I visited him in Sacramento."

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