Argentine lab peddles prized export: thoroughbred polo horse embryos

A five-month-old foal is nursed by a mare at the fields of the equine reproduction Genetec center dedicated to polo horses in Los Cardales(In May 13 story, removes incorrect price of embryo transfer in paragraph 13)

By Miguel Lobianco

(Reuters) – Argentina is famous for its Malbec red wine and beef, but it boasts two lesser-known but equally prized exports: the sperm and frozen embryos of thoroughbred polo horses.

Top-quality sperm costs between $1,000 and $10,000 a batch, depending on the stallion’s lineage, said Cristian Sporleder, whose GeNeTec genetics laboratory has been tapping the high-rolling polo market for five years. An embryo fetches up to $20,000.

The South American country has for decades dominated the sport popular with tycoons and royals, attracting the world’s best players, breeders and wealthy spectators.

It also has one of South America’s most advanced biotechnology sectors, setting up a match made in heaven – or rather, the test tube.

“There is huge demand for Argentine horses that play polo well, said Sporleder, a 43-year-old former polo player and trained veterinarian.

Breeders seeking to create the perfect pony can buy the nitrogen-frozen sperm and artificially inseminate their own top polo mares.

Or they can purchase a complete embryo. Outside Sporleder’s laboratory in the countryside north of Buenos Aires, stallions with glossy chocolate-colored coats are lined up in stalls.

The company’s website provides buyers and dealers with listings and photographs of horses. Clients can search by height or simply for favorites, with names like Rainbow Corner and El Sol.

Introduced in Argentina by the British in the 19th century, polo is akin to field hockey on horseback. Two teams of four riders use long mallets to knock a wooden ball at a furious pace between posts.

Sporleder said the global downturn in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as well as Argentina’s own economic turmoil, had dampened demand for GeNeTec’s frozen horse sperm and embryos. Mounting red tape under President Cristina Fernandez presented another obstacle.

His clients hail from the United States, Europe, Brazil and Venezuela. But the main customer base is in Argentina, where luxury residential estates often encircle polo fields.

Players and stables were increasingly reluctant to take their lucrative mares off the polo field, Sporleder said, spurring demand for surrogate ponies.

So GeNeTec will harvest the ovules of pedigree horses, fertilize the eggs and implant the embryos into surrogates.

“The important point of embryo transfer,” Sporleder said, “is that the donor mare preserves its sporting performance, which means she never stops playing polo.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Lough and Lisa Von Ahn)