By BETSY BLANEY
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -- The nation's pre-eminent quarter horse association is violating state and federal antitrust laws by banning cloned horses from its prestigious registry, a Texas jury ruled Tuesday in a case being closely watched by breeding groups across the U.S.
Attorneys for two ranchers who sued the American Quarter Horse Association said the verdict doesn't automatically require the group to register cloned horses or their offspring. That step could come at a later hearing, attorney Nancy Stone said. Jurors didn't award any of the $6 million in damages being sought by the breeders, but Stone said her clients' primary interest was "to get these horses registered."
Association spokesman Tom Persechino said the organization is considering an appeal, adding "it's fair to say we're disappointed in their verdict."
The association is trying hard to safeguard its prestigious registry, which adds financial value to listed animals. Quarter horses, which are usually smaller than thoroughbreds, are bred for short-distance speed.
But the case could also set a precedent because no American breeding groups currently allow cloned horses to be registered.
The two breeders who filed the lawsuit, Texas Panhandle rancher Jason Abraham and Amarillo veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen, argued that the association was operating a monopoly by excluding clones. The lawsuit notes that the group already allowed other non-natural breeding technologies such as artificial insemination.
The 280,000-member association argued that its rules were fair in requiring that all horses in its registry have a registered mother and a registered father, which is impossible with clones. The group also said it had the right to set its own rules as long as they were reasonable and lawful. During the trial, one of the group's attorneys noted that a survey sent to 3,000 association members a few years ago found that 86 percent of them were opposed to registering clones.
"It continues to be our position that the rule was reasonable and lawful, and that AQHA members should be able to make rules for their association," Persechino said Tuesday.
According to American Paint Horse Association spokesman Billy Smith, breeders worldwide also could be affected because semen could be transported to other countries, though some international laws might not allow the use of clones.
Smith said Tuesday that a fundamental element to any breed registry is the rules that dictate the qualifications for animals to get listed.
"We have explored what the implications are to us," he said. "Our executive committee will be meeting at some point to discuss it relatively soon. Our actions may be predicated on whether there is an appeal to the case or not."
In a brief email responding to a request seeking reaction to the verdict, Bob Curran Jr., a spokesman for The Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbred horses, said only that the decision had no bearing on his organization's registration rules. Schurg said The Jockey Club doesn't allow any assisted breeding techniques.
Texas Racing Commission spokesman Mark Fenner also didn't directly address Tuesday's verdict, saying only that the commission allows horses that have registrations on file with their breed groups to participate in races.
"If they meet eligibility requirements, they very well could be running," he said.
Bill Schurg, who studies equine physiology and nutrition at the University of Arizona, wasn't aware of the case. But he said cloning likely isn't in the best interest of breeders, in part because it eliminates even more genetic diversity in an industry that already has a high rate of inbreeding. He also said it's too early to know the impact of cloning.
"There hasn't been enough evidence to say that it's enhancing anything," he said. "You don't have any good, significant data of all the potential negatives and/or positives."
Schurg also noted, "it's not an inexpensive process." Cloning a horse costs about $150,000, according to information presented during the trial.