By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) - A Texas jury has ruled that a horse association violated anti-monopoly laws by banning cloned animals from its prestigious registry, a decision that could encourage cloning and open the way for the animals to participate in lucrative horse races.
Two Texas breeders, rancher Jason Abraham and veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen, sued the American Quarter Horse Association last year, asserting the group was operating a monopoly by excluding clones.
A federal court jury in Amarillo, Texas, decided on Tuesday that the ban on clones violated federal and state antitrust laws, but did not award the $6 million in damages sought.
The association said it was disappointed with the jury verdict and was considering an appeal. A court hearing will be held soon to determine whether the association will be forced to open its register as a result of the verdict, officials said.
No other horse breeding registry allows cloned animals, although the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association allows cloned horses to compete in rodeos.
The quarter horse association issues and maintains a pedigree registry of American quarter horses, a popular breed associated with cowboys riding on the range in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Quarter horses are known for their strength and speed over short distances, and the name is derived from quarter mile races. They are also popular in rodeos.
The association said in court that it sanctions thousands of quarter horse races annually with total prize money of about $131.5 million in 2012.
The quarter horse association, which has a registry of 751,747 animals, stated in court that it is a private organization and has the right to decide its membership rules. It had previously allowed horses born using reproductive techniques such as artificial insemination to register.
Some quarter horse owners and breeders have complained that cloned animals have an unfair advantage because they are selected according to superior genetic characteristics.
Cloning is the creation of an animal that is an exact genetic copy of another, with the same DNA. A sheep named Dolly produced in Scotland drew international attention when she was shown to the public in 1997. Since then, cloning of agricultural livestock such as cattle and pigs as well as horses and sheep has become more common although it is still a small portion of total livestock production.
The quarter horse association said it had sent a survey to 3,000 members of the group and found 86 percent opposed to registering cloned horses.
Carol Harris, 90, who owns Bo-Bett Farm in central Florida and has registered thoroughbred race horses with AQHA for over 60 years, said many people do not understand the issue.
"I'm not opposed to cloning, but when they try to force you to register clones in a private association, that is not proper," Harris said.
But Blake Russell, president of ViaGen, a Texas-based company that has produced some 160 cloned horses since 2006, said that genetic superiority does not guarantee better performance because environmental factors such as training could make a difference.
"I would say that a cloned horse has an advantage in the breeding barn if the donor was a proven superior producer, but the cloned horse would not necessarily have a substantial advantage in the performance arena," he said.
The verdict could give a boost to his business, Russell said. "We expect more (demand for cloning) now that their registration appears imminent."
(Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Editing by Ken Wills; Editing by Greg McCune)