How clone ponies are transforming the game of polo
Equine Anatomy & Physiology, Future of Polo, Images © Ramón Casares Fine Art Photography, Polo

Game of Clones

Perhaps the greatest polo player ever, Adolfo Cambiaso is planning to compete on a pony that died nearly a decade ago—a clone of his beloved stallion Aiken Cura. With more than 25 replicas of champion horses now in existence, we research how the science came to polo.
Cambiaso 6 cloned horses Equine-Empathy
Polo star Adolfo Cambiaso with six clones of Cuartetera he rode at the Argentine Open 2016

When the world’s most important polo championship went into overtime in 2006, the audience looked to Adolfo Cambiaso to break the tie. Then 31 years old, Cambiaso had already led the winning team at the Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo—known as the Palermo Open—five times before, earning himself a reputation as perhaps the best polo player in history. Three minutes after the starting bell, with the score still tied, theAikemn Cura Polo Artgifted Argentinean galloped down the field to swap mounts.

Throughout the fierce game, Cambiaso had relied heavily on his favorite horse, an agile chestnut stallion with a bold white face named Aiken Cura, and he wanted to let the champion rest.

As the pair made their way toward Cambiaso’s stabling area, the exhausted Aiken Cura’s front left leg suddenly gave out. When Cambiaso felt the horse begin to limp beneath him, he leapt out of his saddle and threw his blue-and-white helmet to the ground in anguish.

Aiken Cura breaks a sesamoid bone, Palermo 2006
The accident at Palermo 2006

“Save this one whatever it takes!” he pleaded, covering his face with his gloves. But following the break of the sesamoid bone, the leg had to be amputated below the knee, and eventually Cambiaso—whose team won the Palermo Open that year and would go on to win the tournament another five times—was forced to euthanize his beloved Cura.

Before he said his final good-bye, however, he had a curious request: he asked a veterinarian to make a small puncture in the stallion’s neck, put the resulting skin sample into a deep freeze, and store it in a Buenos Aires laboratory. He remembers, “I just thought maybe, someday, I could do something with the cells.”

I just thought maybe, someday, I could do something with the cells. ~ Adolfo Cambiaso

With the saved skin sample, Cambiaso was able to use cloning technology to bring Aiken Cura back to life. These days, a four-year-old, identical replica of Cambiaso’s star stallion—called Aiken Cura E01—cavorts around a flower-rimmed field in the Argentinean province of Córdoba, where he has begun to breed and train for competition

E01 Cura first clone of Aiken Cura
E01 Cura | first clone of Aiken Cura

Aiken Cura is one of a number of horses that Cambiaso has duplicated. Through their company, Crestview Genetics, Cambiaso and two wealthy polo enthusiasts—the founder, Texan Alan Meeker, and Argentinean tycoon Ernesto Gutiérrez—have created more than 25 clones of Cambiaso’s champion polo horses and around 45 clones in total. Some are already breeding, and a few others began to play in top tournaments last year. Since the company’s establishment, in 2009, the partners have cloned not only for themselves but also for other international polo players who are willing to shell out around $120,000 per horse. Crestview is one of only two commercial groups in the world replicating polo horses, and is the most prolific.

It is estimated that there are now around 300 cloned horses in the world, although no one has really kept track.  Now, with Crestview’s efforts, polo—the ancient “game of kings”—has found itself on the frontiers of cloning technology.

Dolfina Lapa clone playing Triple Crown. Credit: PoloLIne Inc
Dolfina Lapa clones playing Triple Crown.  Credit: PoloLine Inc

It was Meeker, a 50-year-old financier with silver hair and a penchant for cowboy boots, who first envisioned Crestview Genetics. The son of a wealthy Texas oilman, Meeker grew up in Fort Worth surrounded by horses. When he was in his 20s, a friend persuaded him to try polo, and he was immediately hooked, playing whenever he could. But after Meeker had two sons and his investments—mostly in energy—began to flourish, his free time became limited, and in 2000 he reluctantly took a polo hiatus.

Alan Meeker & Adolfo Cambiaso
Alan Meeker & Adolfo Cambiaso.  Photo: Matías Callejo | PoloLine Inc

In the interim, Meeker was diagnosed with diabetes.  He heard about a lawyer, who had come down with cancer in his pancreas, and doctors had ttempted to clone him a new one. He thought he might try the same and while he was researching the possibility of cloning, he became an amateur expert on the subject. While his fascination with the process endured, his awe receded as he began to better grasp the scientific principles behind it. Cloning became so familiar to him that when Meeker decided to return to polo, in 2007, the idea of filling his stalls with clones seemed natural rather than bizarre. “I did the math and realized it would take me $100 million and 50 years to get the quality of horses I wanted through conventional breeding,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to spend either.” Instead, he turned to cloning.

Of all the equine disciplines, polo is the most open to cloning. There are no restrictions on which breeds polo players can use to compete, and so clones are just as kosher as ‘Thoroughbreds’ and Criollos, the sturdy local stock often used to breed Argentinean polo ponies. The body that governs polo competition is extremely progressive, allowing breeders and players to experiment with any breeding technology that might elevate the level of play. And perfect because top polo players often use more than 10 horses in a single high goal match of 8 chukkas.

Many polo players run lucrative breeding outfits and could have felt threatened by his idea. But he was hopeful about his prospects with Cambiaso, because he had heard that the Argentinean champion was curious about cloning. And indeed Cambiaso responded that he had been waiting for such a proposition ever since his beloved Aiken Cura had to be put down.

The men first met in 2009 when Meeker was in London to play a charity match against British princes William and Harry; and Cambiaso was there for the English season. Not one to idolize players, Meeker chatted with Cambiaso about his kids and his horses without registering that he was talking to the world’s top polo player. Later, he arranged a proper meeting with Cambiaso to discuss how they could work together.

[I was] Just a gringo from Texas, trying to clone the best polo ponies in the world ~ Alan Meeker, Crestview Genetics

At first Meeker’s interest in cloning was merely personal, but he sensed a business opportunity too. When Cambiaso also seemed enthusiastic about the idea, Meeker knew they were on to something. Realizing that he was “just a gringo from Texas, trying to clone the best polo ponies in the world,” and that he needed access to star horses for any commercial venture to succeed, he offered Cambiaso full partnership in Crestview. Cambiaso eagerly accepted, excited more by the implications for his competitiveness than by the possibility of padding his pockets.

Meeker began cloning in 2009, using a Texas lab called ViaGen, and by 2010 he and Cambiaso had their first cloned foals on the ground. “When Alan called me to tell me the clones were starting to be born I couldn’t believe it,” Cambiaso remembers, running his leathery hand over his chin.

$800,000—the most ever paid for a polo horse

Dolfina Cuartetera PoloLine
Dolfina Cuartetera.  Credit: PoloLine Inc

Toward the end of 2010, Meeker and Cambiaso decided to include a clone of Cambiaso’s mare Cuartetera at an auction the Argentinean polo star was hosting to sell promising young horses that he had bred. At a racetrack in the well-heeled Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro, Meeker told a rapt audience what a clone was and how it was produced. When two three-month-old Cuartetera copies were led into the ring and bidders were invited to choose one, he was so astounded by the offers he had to leave the hall to collect his wits.

Ernesto Gutiérrez Adolfo Cambiaso
Ernesto Gutiérrez with Adolfo Cambiaso

Meeker returned just in time to hear the winning bid of $800,000—the most ever paid for a polo horse—from a partnership led by Argentinean businessman and amateur polo buff Ernesto Gutiérrez, a close friend of Cambiaso’s.

Gutiérrez was interested in more than just owning a Cuartetera, however.

He wanted Meeker and Cambiaso to bring him on as Crestview’s third partner. In a meeting shortly after the auction, he told them, “Look, you can’t sell any more of these horses.” To sell the clones, the businessman argued, was to give away Crestview’s most important asset: its monopoly on the genetics of Cambiaso’s star horses. Instead, he suggested that Crestview bring the clone Gutiérrez had bought back into the company, loop Gutiérrez in as a partner, and sell only the foals of clones.

Cuartetera 09, clone of Dolfina Cuartetera | Casares Fine Art Photography
Cuartetera 09, clone of Dolfina Cuartetera.  Photography by Ramon Casares

Meeker and Cambiaso invited Gutiérrez on board. Besides being close with Cambiaso, Gutiérrez is experienced in navigating Argentina’s convoluted business environment. He ran one of the country’s most important companies, airport operator Aeropuertos Argentina 2000, and was also an influential stakeholder in Cambiaso’s own La Dolfina clothing company.

Gutiérrez spends much of the year jetting between surf destinations and his large, thatch-roofed house in Panama. When he travels to Argentina for the polo season, in September, he sticks close to La Ensenada, his sprawling estancia, where he has more than 150 horses and three polo fields.

It is on that 300-acre property, an hour outside of Buenos Aires, that Crestview has built its own proprietary lab. At first, the company outsourced all of its cloning to ViaGen, in Texas. Early on, when Meeker realized he was one of the lab’s biggest clients, he considered buying the whole operation, but ultimately decided just to license its technique for the cloning of polo horses. Though they collaborate with ViaGen occasionally, the Crestview team now undertakes most of its cloning at their private facility on Gutiérrez’s farm. (They also raise clones at Meeker’s farm in Aiken, South Carolina.)

Crestview’s lab consists of three main rooms. The group’s six scientists use the back rooms to warm petri dishes in incubators or freeze them in a giant locker cooled to -112 degrees Fahrenheit. In the main area, they gather around a granite-topped table, strewn with microscopes, pipettes, and LCD screens. While hunched over this table the lab’s technicians produce hundreds of clone embryos every week.

Donor cells being prepared for transfer into host eggs. Photo- Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
Donor cells being prepared for transfer into host eggs at Crestview Genetics. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

The day before the team plans to clone, which they do three times a week, they have a delivery of ovaries salvaged from dead horses. Plugging their noses to cope with the stench and blasting Bruce Springsteen to help with the repetitiveness of the task at hand, the specialists scrape out the enormous ovaries with a spatula to remove the eggs and place them in an incubator. After 24 hours, when the eggs are mature enough to be manipulated, the head scientists slide them under powerful microscopes and use a minuscule hollow needle to clean them and remove the nuclei, which contain their DNA. Again with a needle, the scientists insert a cell from the horse they wish to clone into a special zone just inside the empty egg’s outer membrane. This package is then given an electric shock to fuse the two parts, soaked in a cocktail of different chemicals, and popped in an incubator for seven days.

Of the approximately 100 embryos the Crestview team creates every day it clones, only 35 percent survive their time in the incubator. “It’s not easy to trick an egg into believing it’s fertilized,” chief scientist Adrián Mutto explains. The embryos that persevere are packed into a metal basket that simulates the warmth of a womb and shipped to embryo centers to be implanted in surrogate mares. At this point, the process of creating a clone converges with the process of producing a conventional polo foal.

When I see a clone of mine born, it’s this unbelievable sensation. I think, I’ve known you since you were one cell. ~ Adrián Mutto, chief scientist, Crestview Genetics

About 25 years ago, polo breeders realized that letting their horses mate normally—stallion sees mare, stallion likes mare, stallion mounts mare—was inefficient. Most polo horses are mares and, using natural breeding methods, were not allowed to reproduce until they retired. The alternative and now widely adopted embryo-transfer system, wherein mares are artificially inseminated and their fertilized embryos transferred into surrogate broodmares, has increased the reproductive potential of polo mares from one to four to six foals per year, even while they are still playing. Since it took hold commercially, in the 1990s, the method has completely transformed how polo breeders operate, with very few Argentinean breeders allowing their horses to spontaneously ‘roll in the hay’ anymore.

youtube-logo  Crestview Genetics Adolfo Cambiaso Cloned Horse Dream |03:16 | Alan Meeker | Published on 22 Feb 2012

Crestview’s owners believe cloning will stretch equine reproductive limits even further than embryo transfer did. By creating multiple copies of star horses and subsequently using the standard artificial-insemination and embryo-transfer techniques to breed those clones with other top-performing horses, Crestview can create droves of genetically promising foals. Meeker explains, “We are turning the tables for mares and stallions. With cloning you can have a mare spreading her genetics as far and wide, someday perhaps wider even than stallions can.”

It is this “genetic improvement program” that most excites the Crestview men. All of their clones will be trained for high-level play, and the majority will also be used to create foals with favorable DNA. Crestview’s clones have already produced around 200 such foals, some of which have been sold, at the fixed price of $80,000 or three for $200,000.

alan-meeker-and-cambiaso-with-a-clone-of-small-person-at-cambiasos-cc3b3rdoba-farm-photo-photograph-by-jonathan-becker.jpg
Alan Meeker and Cambiaso, with a clone of Small Person, at Cambiaso’s Córdoba farm. Photograph by Jonathan Becker

Gutiérrez is even breezier, blithely sharing a story about the unfortunately named Small Person, a petite mare of Cambiaso’s that Crestview has cloned. “I was with my daughter in Palm Beach meeting with Alan about the clones. We were on our way to Snowmass to ski. We’re eating breakfast, and Alan says, ‘On your way to Colorado, come by Aiken to see the Small Person clones. We have six or seven Small Persons.’ My daughter’s face went white,” he recalls, laughing heartily at the memory. “She didn’t know we had a horse called Small Person and thought we had miniature humans living in a corral!”

Meeker and Gutiérrez believe their horse clones are born with a type of shadow memory inherited from their donor “parents.” “From a very early age, they know things that no one has taught them,” Gutiérrez says. “Normally horses don’t become aware of their gender until their hormones kick in at a year and a half. That’s not true of the clones. They become aware a lot earlier and cannot be left in the same paddock, otherwise they fight or try to mate.”

In horses, as in other species, certain experiences and conditions can cause changes to the way the DNA works in their cells. Though it has never been proved scientifically, Gutiérrez, Meeker, and Mutto suspect that these epigenetic changes, as they’re called, can result in things as complex as a horse’s learned behaviors being stored not just in the horse’s brain but encoded in every cell in the body. When the adult horse is cloned, they believe, these “cellular memories” are copied right along with the DNA.

Califa with Mariano Aguerre up; 2009 Argentine Open; (photo courtesy of American Polo Horse Association)
Califa with Mariano Aguerre; 2009 Argentine Open.  Photo courtesy of American Polo Horse Association

 

Mariano Aguerre, ranked among the top polo players in the world, has observed something along these lines with the clone of his champion gelding Califa. The original Califa has an intense fear of garden hoses; its clone is equally terrified of them.

Certain members of the polo world are also dubious about equine cloning. According to one Argentinean polo insider, the Pieres family, whose three strapping sons are among Cambiaso’s most formidable challengers, opposes cloning because the outcomes are too uncertain. In 2007, two years before Meeker founded Crestview, the Piereses teamed up with private groups and two university labs to replicate their retired star mare, Chusma. The resulting foal died less than 24 hours after she was born, and the family, it seems, has not cloned since. “I might clone stallions and mares for breeding, in case something happened to them,” Facundo Pieres, 29, told a reporter last year. “But not to play on. There would be a lot of pressure for the clones to perform as well as the original, and in reality it depends a lot on how they’re bred, broken, and trained. It is very unlikely that they would be identical to the cloned horse.” Cambiaso chalks the Pieres family’s position up to disappointment: “They tried and gave up before it started working. Now they’re late.” (Source: Vanity Fair).

Though the process has since become more reliable, Crestview’s cloning journey has not been free of obstacles, either. With an overall success rate of around 12 percent, Crestview’s team has to create a dozen embryos and impregnate three or four broodmares to ensure the successful birth of even one clone. “Cloning is still a very experimental process,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University, says. “You get a lot of animals that are in poor health and a lot that are stillborn. The toll of cloning is high on the broodmares.”

Mutto insists that most of Crestview’s unsuccessful clone embryos die before or very soon after they are transferred into live wombs, meaning limited distress for the surrogate mares. Of the clones Crestview has brought to term, he says very few have had any serious health issues: “Maybe 1 in 30 of our clones born has a slight problem.”

Crestview’s only true competitor in cloning polo ponies, an Argentinean company called Kheiron, and Katrin Hinrichs, who clones horses for research purposes at Texas A&M University, have had different experiences. Both report a high incidence of clone embryos being lost during gestation and say that, of those brought to term, many are born with health issues. Of the 20 cloned foals she has brought into the world, Hinrichs says, half had some health problems, ranging from mild to serious. The results reported by Kheiron are better but still not heartening: 60 percent of the clones it has brought to term were completely healthy, but 25 percent suffered from serious or fatal health issues.

When asked how she defends such a physically costly process, Hinrichs, a self-professed horse-lover and quarter-horse competitor, explains that the aim of her research “is to develop methods to reduce fetal loss and to increase the health of cloned foals.” She pauses before musing, “The knowledge that we’re gaining by cloning justifies the fetal loss and problems.”

STORM CAT REBORN

For Crestview, the greater motivator is to raise the caliber of polo ponies. The Crestview clones are healthy enough to breed, and some have even risen to top levels of play. And Crestview is now moving beyond polo ponies.Meeker’s eyes light up when he talks about the potential of two three-month-old clones that were born in April at his farm in Aiken. The foals, which are dark bay with chestnut overtones and have a feisty streak, just like their “father,” are genetic replicas of Storm Cat, a descendant of Secretariat’s and a world-renowned racehorse in his own right, who died in 2013. At the peak of his stud career, racing buffs paid $500,000 for the swift stallion to impregnate their mares. (Among his offspring was the 1994 Preakness and Belmont champion, Tabasco Cat; this year’s Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah, is his great-grandson.) In 2005, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, snapped up three Storm Cat foals at a Kentucky auction for $3 million, $3.5 million, and a staggering $9.7 million.

Two Storm Cat clones, with patches shaved for routine neonatal care, Aiken, South Carolina. Photo- Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
Two Storm Cat clones, with patches shaved for routine neonatal care. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Crestview’s owners have high hopes for Storm Cat’s clones. Thoroughbred racing is one of the few equine disciplines, along with quarter-horse competition, where clones are banned from participating, but Meeker is considering the possibility that Storm Cat copies might someday race at non-registered tracks, and he certainly expects them to give polo a whirl. “Storm Cat was more compact than a regular racehorse,” Meeker explains. “The clones might be really good at polo.” At the very least, Crestview’s owners will breed the Storm Cat clones with top-performing polo mares of Cambiaso’s and offer their stud services to other interested horse breeders.

We may someday see Cambiaso in a polo championship on the back of a pony descended from Secretariat by way of a Storm Cat clone. And when it’s time to play the Palermo Open this November, Cambiaso will surely have clones in his lineup. For him, the ultimate dream is to play a match on nothing but Cuartetera clones. He’s getting closer to that goal.

At last year’s Palermo Open, Cambiaso played on a five-year-old Cuartetera clone, which he unceremoniously named Cuartetera 01, in a qualifying match, eight years after losing Aiken Cura there. Streaking across the grass, weaving through a sea of swinging mallets, horse and rider melted into each other, moving as if they shared a brain. Cambiaso merely had to graze the clone with his heels and Cuartetera 01 shot forward. Touch the reins, and she sharply slowed.

Cuartetera 01 at Triple Crown. Photo Credit PoloLine Inc
Cuartetera 01 playing the Triple Crown  Photo Credit: PoloLine Inc

When asked why he didn’t give the mare her own name, he replied frankly, “Because she is Cuartetera, not any other horse.”

Source:  Written by Haley Cohen for Vanity Fair | Photographs by Jonathan Becker