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For equine entertainment, Mr. Ed has nothing on cloned-mule races

Move over Butch Cassidy — Winnemucca, Nev., soon will have a new most exciting moment.

Cloned mule racing.

That's right, the tiny Nevada town, in which Cassidy may or may not have held up a bank in 1900, will host the first-ever professional event to include cloned animals.

Idaho Gem and Idaho Star were cloned at the University of Idaho — take that Boise State — and trained in different environments. They will race against natural mules Saturday in separate heats.

And, in case you're thinking road trip, there will be a final and a consolation final Sunday.

"We know there's going to be a huge turnout to see how they compete," said Don Jacklin, an innovator in the cloning project and president of the American Mule Racing Association.

It will be a weekend of firsts, Jacklin said.

It will be the first time that a clone has been in a professional competitive event.

It will be the first time clones have competed against non-clones.

And, if Idaho Gem and Idaho Star qualify for the same race Sunday, it will be the first time two clones have competed against each other.

If that doesn't get the blood boiling, well, what would?

The mules — a mixed-breed from a female horse and male donkey — already have set several firsts. Idaho Gem was the world's first cloned equine when he was born May 4, 2003. Idaho Star was the fourth, born July 23, 2003.

Both are owned by the University of Idaho, which also produced the third cloned mule — Utah Pioneer, which by the way, will be in Winnemucca as a spectator.

The cloned-mule project has been long and complicated. It took four years of failure before scientists were able to get an embryo to last inside a surrogate mother. Jacklin provided the original DNA for the project from the bloodlines of championship racing mule Taz. The mules are like his brother.

The cloning project, Jacklin said, has led to a potential breakthrough for treatment of prostate cancer in males.

Jacklin, who is opposed to human cloning, holds great hope for the cloning process in animals. He sees it as a way to add to the genetic pool of thoroughbred racing and keep animals off the endangered species list. Jacklin believes compelling scientific knowledge will be gained — and he also believes United States scientists need a spot at the table.

"Cloning is going to happen. It is happening, the cloning of horses and cats and dogs from Korea to Japan to Italy. It needs rules and regulations," Jacklin said. "And the only way to properly put in rules and regulations is to be part of the discussion."

As for this weekend's races, there are a few things to know (for gambling purposes, maybe?).

Gem and Star, though genetically identical, have been raised and trained in different environments.

Star has been soaking in the California sun, chasing cows and exercising more. As a result, the mule is 30 pounds lighter than his twin and more of a rusty black.

Gem, stationed in a different part of California, is a darker black and more muscular. He's much closer in overall appearance to Utah Pioneer, which has been stationed in Moscow for observation.

Jacklin, himself an identical twin, puts the odds of the pair finishing in a dead heat at "one in a million."

"If they both get a clean break from the gate and everything goes perfect, it will be a real analysis of the trainer. Which trainer did the best job? Which jockey did? We'll really be able to see some environmental differences," Jacklin said.

And it will all be on display in Winnemucca, where national and international media are expected to gather to witness history. This could be the first step in developing clones to dominate horse racing.

Who wouldn't want to see Secretariat ride again?

"A lot of old world champion horses could race again with new bodies," Jacklin said.

There's also a chance that this weekend could be a colossal flop. There's no guarantee the cloned mules will be any faster than regular mules.

Myself, I'm rooting for a good old-fashioned clone-whipping. I want the naturals to dominate.

Clones winning races seems a bit dangerous — even if it would put Winnemucca on the map.