Interview: Twink Allen: `It would level the playing field, and the smaller breeder would get a chance'.
THE Equine Fertility Unit, located on 114 acres of prime grazing land within the Duke of Sutherland's Stetchworth Estate, lies minutes from the grassy gallops of Newmarket. It is also within hollering distance of some of the world's most valuable and productive thoroughbred breeding operations, putting the two - research facility and what is essentially a huge equine nursery - in position for a uniquely symbiotic relationship to thrive.
The EFU, a registered charity, is administered by a board of five governors appointed by the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. Overseeing it all is Professor WR (Twink) Allen CBE, the EFU's director and Jim Joel Professor of Equine Reproduction at the University of Cambridge.
Although nowadays his name is inevitably linked to his flamboyant Italian son-in-law, Allen was deep into his pioneering research on equine fertility before Frankie Dettori ever sat on his first pony.
The professor, who arrived by way of New Zealand 36 years ago, has nonetheless retained both the accent and the earthy good humour of his native land. He breezes in apologising for being half an hour late, having gone home first to "wash off the mud and muck" of an early morning's fieldwork.
The laboratory where we meet is likewise devoid of dirt, airy and bathed in light, and on the walls are photos of the smiling researcher in various exotic locales surrounded by animals - camels, donkeys, horses - as well as humans, all looking similarly happy to be where they are. Clearly, this is a man who enjoys his work.
All of which is not to say that Allen's is a career free from controversy. Two years ago, the birth of twin `test-tube' foals at the EFU - part of a project to improve the sport horse - provoked an angry letter from an anonymous group of breeders to the Racing Post, protesting the use of TBA money to partly fund the project.
"Is this a properly
market-researched business project or one scientist's expensive ego trip?" the letter asked.
At the time, the TBA defended the use of its funds, praising "the vast amount of good for thoroughbred breeders" that the EFU has done. And Allen is quick to point out that the advanced techniques being developed to breed better sport horses, whose population of elite competitors is largely composed of geldings and older mares, are not targeted for use on racing thoroughbreds.
Nonetheless, Allen is not shy about expressing irreverent views. Like any good scientist, he believes hypotheses should be tested before they are discarded - and having been in the front line of those doing the testing for over 35 years, he speaks with more authority than most.
So when he turns perceived wisdom on its head with the revolutionary claim that artificial insemination could be the antidote to overproduction - or that the horse can be improved through genetic design with the use of a `gene-linkage map', the equine equivalent of the human genome project - the world might be wise at least to hear the man out.
Conventional wisdom has it that AI, banned by international agreement, goes hand in hand with overproduction, considered a serious problem by many industry leaders. Au contraire, says Allen.
"Two years ago, John Digby, the keeper of the Australian Stud Book, looked into it [the problem of overproduction]. Of the ten stallions in the world, of all breeds - Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, everything - that inseminated, be it naturally or artificially, the most numbers of mares, four were thoroughbreds covering naturally.
"So where AI was permissible, there are only six stallions of all breeds in the world inseminating more than can be covered naturally with the thoroughbreds."
So what prompts statements such as this one, issued by the Jockey Club's public relations officer John Maxse after the birth of the test-tube foals: "The effects of artificial insemination would be grave for racing's breeding industry and it is not in anybody's interest?"
Allen appears both irritated and amused by the foibles of his fellow humans. "It's an inherent,
in-dwelling fear that suddenly the whole industry's going to collapse because there are going to be people running around with vials of semen in their pocket going `Pssst, pssst, have a bit of my Sadler's Wells semen'. And it ain't going to work like that, because there's a number of limitations to AI.
"First of all you've got to get the stallion to mount and produce his semen into an artificial vagina, and some don't like doing that.
Secondly, the idea of frozen semen sitting there in liquid nitrogen tanks and being used at will is nonsense, because about a third of all
stallions freeze badly. And if they freeze badly, forget it, you can't get any pregnancies from them of any merit.
"All I want AI for - I don't want to inseminate all mares, that's ridiculous - is when there's a veterinary reason to use it, and
there are some times we should be able to use it. It shouldn't be so terrifyingly, blanketly bad as it is now. And there are three very obvious reasons.
"First, if you have a young maiden mare who's frightened of the stallion. You've seen it in the covering yards. Well, she has to be screwed down and doped and raped. And that's dangerous for her, and particularly dangerous for the stallion exposing his crown jewels. That could all be overcome by artificial insemination.
"The second big one is the older mare. We're determined to breed from our older mares, and we could improve the situation markedly and increase the conception rates if we don't face them with the bacterial challenge of covering.
"Third, if there is a disease outbreak and we have strangles on a stud or we have EHV [Equine Herpes Virus] abortions on a stud, you don't have to clam up for a month, you can just carry on."
Underlying all the fear is the notion that today's dominance by the few could be extrapolated to disastrous proportions. Again, just the opposite, says Allen.
"It would level the playing field. That's the tragedy of it. What you would logically go for is an international agreement to limit the number of mares per stallion to a figure, let's say a hundred.
"You could inseminate as many as you like, but you could only register a hundred. Only a hundred get in the stud book and only a hundred could race.
"That's another reason I think we should not ban AI, because a logical extension of it is to limit the number of mares and that would level the playing field, which would therefore broaden the genetic base because more stallions would be required to cover the 11,000 mares currently being covered in Britain and Ireland. The small guys would get a chance again.
"The veterinary profession would be pleased to see AI introduced for veterinary reasons. But they won't take any part in ruling the industry because the industry is so fragile it can't rule itself.
"If we could use AI, then we could improve the fertility figures by about five to eight per cent a year, within a couple of years. But that's all - it would make life easier.
"There is a deep-seated fear in the thoroughbred world. The old boys, the old guard, are most against it. And most of all it's the big stallion owners whose charges cover
large books of mares who don't want it, because it will level the playing field.
"But the smaller breeder, he's not getting a fair crack of the whip. And his whip would be bigger with AI."
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Feb 18, 2003|
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