Project Idaho clones to begin training for track competition


Coeur d'Alene Press

POST FALLS - Two mule clones are following the tracks of their natural-born brother.

University of Idaho mule clones Idaho Gem and Idaho Star are off to the races.

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

"The two guys are doing marvelous," Jacklin said of the mule clones.

Jacklin, owner of champion racing mule Taz, was one of the biggest sponsors behind Project Idaho, the UI program that was the first to successfully clone a member of the horse family.

The genetic duplicates are full brothers of Taz, a champion racing mule. The clone DNA comes from skin cells of the same fetal mule.

Racing will test the clones' genes and athletic ability.

Jacklin thinks they have the potential to be champions like Taz.

"I was just so impressed by them, their attitudes, the width of their chests, their temperament, and, of course, their genetics."

Jacklin leased Idaho Gem, because he was the first of three mule clones. A mule is a hybrid, born of a donkey father and horse mother.

With rare exceptions, mules are sterile and can?t reproduce naturally.

Idaho Gem was born May 4, 2003, Utah Pioneer was born on June 9, 2003, and Idaho Star debuted on July 27, 2003.

Gem has been sent to a trainer in California.

Downey is having Idaho Star trained in Montana.

It's still a long way to the track. The pair must complete nearly a year of training before they reach a racetrack.

"They will have light training until January or February of 2006," Jacklin said. "Then we'll move to race training."

That's when the two clones will begin to prove their fitness to race and address the debate about whether genetics or environment makes for winners or also-rans.

"We'll be able to evaluate different management techniques," Jacklin said. "We'll have a good feeling of the different environmental factors on who trains who ... and how they are brought forward into the racing circles."

Their genetics are showing through.

"If you put them all separate from one another and look at one and then walk over and look at the other, you can tell they are absolutely physically identical," he said. "But if you put them together, you can see a little height and size differential."

There's about an inch difference between the Gem and Star.

"There are a few more pounds on the first-born," he said.

Although they are genetically identical, they each have their own personality, based on their surrogate mares to which they aren't genetically related.

"They are spinoffs from their mothers," Jacklin said. "If their mother acts one way, they kind of mimic the action."

Idaho Star was the last clone born. His mother was a "nasty herd boss," who pushed others around and let them know she was in charge, Jacklin said.

"The baby would try to act like that even though he was the smallest of the group," he said. "He would try to dominate the other two brothers when they were together."

Yet, Star seems to be the most willing to accept training.

"He seems to understand it quicker and wants to please quicker," Jacklin said.

Idaho Gem is easier to be around, but his handler in California said he's not as easy to train.

"He's a little more reluctant to accept it," Jacklin said.

The British television company, Discovery, approached Jacklin and Downey to do a documentary on the clones.

"I think they want to do it on their racing performance for comparison of clones," Jacklin said. "We're excited about working with them."

Taz is home recovering from a tendon injury he suffered in a race in Pamona, Calif., last year. Jacklin is giving the 11-year-old champion a full year to recuperate.

"I just want to make sure he's totally healed, so he can race again," Jacklin said.

Jacklin owns four other racing mules. Three of them are related to Taz. He also is a one-third partner in another mule.

The mule racing season began last week in Winnemucca, Nev. The opener is followed by a race in Oregon. The remainder of the races are on California tracks, extending into October.

Unlike thoroughbred horse racing, mule racing has no restrictions on the use of artificially bred animals.

Utah Pioneer, the middle clone, remains at the UI campus. The clone is not alone, said Dirk Vanderwall, UI assistant professor of equine reproduction and a veterinarian.

"We've already had several school groups come and see him since Gem and Star left," Vanderwall said.

The added human attention and the lack of distractions from his stable mates also led Utah Pioneer to become more focused on people. He had been the most reticent of the clones to seek attention.