By T. D. Thornton
Three members of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), plus the agency's executive director, on Thursday advocated for the reinstatement of temporarily suspended CHRB equine medical director Jeff Blea on the eve of his hearing before the California Veterinary Medical Board (VMB) to rule on a list of allegations that include administering “dangerous drugs” to racehorses without examination or medical necessity.
“For my own two cents as chairman, I think that the issues surrounding Dr. Jeff Blea brought forth by the veterinary medical board are both ill-advised and slanderous,” said CHRB chair Gregory Ferraro, who is also a licensed veterinarian.
“Unfortunately, he has now become a pawn in a politically driven agenda to disparage horse racing in California,” Ferraro said. “The people behind this effort are willing to sully and besmirch Dr. Blea's reputation to achieve their ends. And while they are in the process of achieving these goals, the health and safety of racehorses are being compromised every day that Dr. Blea is not allowed to perform his duties.
“Personally, I am dismayed that no one in authority is willing to step forward and call out this ordeal for what it is–an unwarranted and unfair vendetta,” Ferraro summed up.
No members of the CHRB voiced criticisms of Blea. But when the topic was opened up to hear the opinions of nine members of the public who had requested commentary time, sentiment turned against Blea and the CHRB's backing of him by an 8-1 margin.
Among the public opinions voiced were some that advocated for letting the VMB process play out so Blea's allegedly “reckless” behavior could be properly adjudicated. One speaker also called for Ferraro to go on the record by naming the people or entities he believes are slandering Blea.
After the public portion of the Jan. 20 CHRB meeting, the board was scheduled to discuss the case in greater detail while operating in a closed executive session.
TDN reported last week how the VMB also claims that Blea presents a “danger to public health, safety and welfare” due to his oversight of the high-profile investigation into the death of the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, the GI Kentucky Derby winner who collapsed and died after a scheduled workout Dec. 6 at Santa Anita Park.
The alleged medication violations occurred before Blea's tenure began at the CHRB, when he was previously employed as an attending veterinarian who treated racehorses.
“Although I question the veracity of those allegations, what is particularly disturbing is the desire to suspend his veterinary license in advance of his hearing, and more to the point, prevent him from working in his role as equine medical director,” said Scott Chaney, the CHRB's executive director.
“I am sorry for Dr. Blea and his family. And although he has been professional and hopeful throughout this ordeal, it is not right that his excellent reputation be besmirched in this way,” Chaney said.
Chaney said the CHRB has hired outside legal counsel to represent its interests in the case and to “right this wrong.” He added that acting veterinary personnel have been appointed to ensure that the equine medical director's duties get covered, but that the CHRB is “less effective without him.”
CHRB vice chair Oscar Gonzales said, “In order for the CHRB to keep moving in the right direction, we need Dr. Blea as equine medical director.”
Commissioner Alex Solis also spoke out in defense of Blea's character and competence.
None of the four CHRB-affiliated speakers directly addressed the charges against Blea. They largely chose to cite declining equine fatality statistics at the state's racetracks, which they said underscored the importance of having their chosen equine medical director in place to further those efforts.
Gonzales cited “outdated standards and regulations” as a factor in Blea's case, and he implored the CHRB and VMB to meet “as soon as possible” to update such standards to prevent similar “unintended consequences.”
Public commenter Lynn Freudenberg, who signed up to speak as a member of an organization called “Kill Racing, Not Horses,” advocated for the CHRB to take an introspective look at its defense of Blea.
“I know you guys have a personal relationship with Dr. Blea. And I can see why you like him. He's your veterinarian–of course you like him,” Freudenberg said. “But you have to realize that the veterinary board has reason and they have evidence, and they're asking for this to be debated if [Blea's conduct] is wrong.
“Dr. Blea is being charged with negligence. He's administering drugs, medications [and applying] treatment to animals without performing an examination or performing a diagnosis. He's just blindly giving things out. There's six cases, and they have a list of drugs that go with it,” Freudenberg said.
“These are all recent [allegations]. This is nothing from the past,” Freudenberg said. “I don't know why you would stand behind somebody when his own veterinary board is going against him. I think you have to open your eyes and see what's going on and why this is happening.”
A Jan. 11 TDN investigation into the accusations against Blea found a broad consensus among veterinary medical experts that the alleged infractions are largely matters of poor record keeping that rarely, if ever, rise to the level of a suspended license.