09/05/2003 12:00AM

State fair a glimpse into the possible future


NEW YORK - There was Labor Day racing at 41 different Thoroughbred venues last Monday, from Arlington and Assiniboia to Yavapai and Yellowstone. The most interesting equine on display, however, was not to be found at those ovals, nor at Del Mar or Saratoga, but just outside the entrance to the grandstand at the California Exposition and State Fair in Sacramento.

This is not a veiled reference to the most famous visitor at Cal Expo that day: Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose jawline and, some would say, public-policy expertise are indeed reminiscent of many a horse. Schwarzenegger made a stop at the fair as part of his campaign to be California's next governor, but whatever his virtues may be, they do not include offering a possible cure for cancer or a way to save endangered animal species. The true star of the fair, Idaho Gem, in addition to having adorably fuzzy ears, holds promise on both of those fronts.

Idaho Gem, who has just turned 4 months old, became the first cloned equine when he entered the world last May. I claim no expertise in exactly what a conventional baby mule should look like, but the researchers from the University of Idaho and Utah State who created him say he is acting and developing just like nature's version of what happens when a male jackass meets a female horse.

Idaho Gem, created from the fetal DNA of a full brother to mule racing's celebrated Taz, has been touring the California fair circuit with his surrogate mother. Mule magnate Don Jacklin of Post Falls, Idaho, who races Taz, funded the cloning project for $400,000 and would like to race Idaho Gem when he turns 3. Jacklin hopes that cloning will allow racing mules, who are sterile, to perpetuate their bloodlines as other equine breeds do.

Idaho Gem and two subsequent sibling clones may prove more important than allowing mule racing to have its version of Storm Cat or A.P. Indy. The researchers see successful equine cloning as a way to preserve endangered breeds such as the Mongolian wild horse. They also think they may have stumbled onto a key human application.

It seems that the trick to a successful equine clone was to fool the horse embryo into beginning the rapid cell division usually triggered by sperm. After some trial and error, they found that bathing the embryo in calcium did the trick. The significance here is that calcium levels are similarly elevated in humans when cancerous tumors are growing out of control, so there may be a way to reverse the same process that facilitated Idaho Gem's conception in order to control cell division in human cancers.

No one knows if that will work any more than whether cloned equines can survive to racing age and whether they will be any good as runners. The latter question might be answered on Labor Day 2006 at Cal Expo, when Idaho Gem could be ready for a race like this year's second on the Labor Day card at Sacramento - a $5,000 optional claimer at 350 yards for mules of all ages "with an average speed index of 61 and under or claiming price $3,200."

How do you handicap a mule race? Pedigree seems an iffy basis. Mule number 1, a 13-year-old brown gelding named Southern Preacher, sported the following bloodlines: "Sire: Oscar. Dam: Unknown." A different angle, familiar from the Thoroughbred game, proved the key in this event: The number 7 mule, Dance N Mouse, had a dismal 1-for-33 career record but today was first-time Lasix and he scored by a head at $43.20. You only had to come up with him and the 9-year-old mare Juicy Fruit at 12-1 to hit the superfecta, because the 7-4-all-all combo returned $945.10 for $1. More than $100,000 was bet on the race.

It took Dance N Mouse 21.87 seconds to cover the 350 yards, which won't beat many Quarter Horses but is pretty rapid for a half-donkey. Thoroughbred loyalists might be surprised how quickly other breeds can run. Granted, the Arabians in the third race (the $10,500 Hazel Lucas Stakes) needed 1:49.40 for a mile, but in the day's opening contest, Appaloosas who had not won a sweepstakes in 2003 ran an opening quarter-mile in 21.60 seconds and a half-mile in 44.60.

Cal Expo racing is much more than Appaloosas, mules, and Arabians. After those first three races there were nine live Thoroughbred events and the usual California simulcasting menu including Del Mar and Saratoga. The simulcasting area at the fairgrounds is open year-round and is Sacramento's only offtrack betting outlet. Like so many smaller venues around the country where operators cater more carefully to simulcast players than major tracks do, Sacramento offers spacious and comfortable facilities, ample television monitors, and strong handicapping and fan-education programs.

The 12 days of live racing each year are an unusual opportunity to create new fans.

"We're already doing what a company like Magna keeps talking about," said Dave Elliott, the director of racing, as he gestured from the grandstand toward Idaho Gem and the rides and midway beyond. "They say they want to turn every track into an entertainment center. We've already got one."