Stay Denied on Interim Suspension of Blea's Vet License

Jeff Blea | AAEP


A hearing in the Los Angeles County Superior Court Wednesday morning resulted in a denial of sidelined California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director Jeff Blea's request to stay the California Veterinary Medical Board's interim suspension of his veterinary license, meaning that the California horse racing industry continues to operate without its chief veterinarian at least for the near future.

According to George Wallace, Blea's attorney, Judge James Chalfant was not persuaded by the argument that Blea and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) would suffer irreparable harm if the interim suspension remained in place, pending a formal hearing on the merits of the veterinary board's accusations against him.

UC Davis placed Blea on administrative leave from his role as equine medical director Jan 12. That position is first appointed by the dean of UC Davis, which then contracts with the CHRB for the appointee's services.

Since then, UC Davis has used various school personnel to fulfil the equine medical director's duties for the CHRB.

“Basically, [the judge] concluded on balance that the benefit of lifting the interim suspension order, even in part, was not outweighed by the harm that the interim suspension order is doing. And he seemed not to be really tuned in either to Jeff Blea's irreparable harm in not being able to do his job, or the public policy harm being caused by the CHRB having to function without its chosen equine medical director,” said Wallace.

Late last month, Blea filed a writ of mandate with the LA County Superior Court seeking to formally lift the veterinary board's interim suspension. The February court filing also sought declarative and injunctive relief, arguing that the position of equine medical director does not require an active license, and that Blea, UC Davis and the CHRB will continue to suffer “irreparable harm” if California horse racing's head veterinarian remains unable to fulfil his duties.

According to Wallace, the judge set the next procedural hearing on the case for Apr. 7, at which point, the date of the formal hearing on the writ of mandate petition will likely be scheduled.

The full merits hearing on the veterinary board accusations against Blea–which will be conducted before an administrative law judge–has similarly yet to be set. Theoretically, this could occur before the writ of mandate petition hearing in the LA County Superior Court, said Wallace.

In the interim, the CHRB–which has thrown its public support behind Blea–could intervene in the matter with a legal challenge to the veterinary board's jurisdictional authority in the case, said Wallace.

Indeed, a court filing with the Superior Court Monday explained that CHRB chair Greg Ferraro, who formerly served on the California Veterinary Medical Board, had issued a joint declaration explaining that the veterinary board is basing the bulk of its accusation “on misconceptions of how veterinary medicine is practiced in the racetrack environment (which is more analogous to an agricultural or herd practice in many cases than it is to a general small animal practice) and misinterpretation of the governing statutes.”

According to CHRB executive director, Scott Chaney, the agency is weighing its legal options in light of Wednesday's ruling.

“We are obviously disappointed with the decision,” Chaney added, “but we are hopeful that justice will be done in the end.”

Early this year, an administrative law judge issued an interim suspension of Blea's veterinary license for a number of offenses alleged by the veterinary board, including purportedly administering medications to racehorses without a prior examination, without forming a diagnosis and without medical necessity.

The veterinary board also claimed that Blea presents a “danger to public health, safety and welfare,” due to his oversight as equine medical director of the high-profile investigation into the death of the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (Protonico), the Kentucky Derby winner who collapsed and died after a scheduled workout Dec. 6 at Santa Anita.

Blea hasn't practiced private veterinary medicine since assuming the equine medical director position in June of last year.

The necropsy and postmortem review of Medina Spirit's death is now complete, with the cause of death undetermined. The executive associate dean of UC Davis's School of Veterinary Medicine ultimately oversaw the necropsy examination.

According to various leading veterinary medical experts, the veterinary board's accusations levelled against Blea consist largely of lax record keeping.

They also suggest that the veterinary board's investigation potentially failed to account for the unusual nature of veterinary practice on the backstretch, where veterinarians–even those with multiple barns under their care–can build the sort of daily relationship with their animals absent from traditional small animal practice.

Various legal and medical experts have described the veterinary board's case against Blea as something of a litmus test with potentially significant bearing not only on equine veterinary practice in California but on large animal practice in general.

Kathryn Papp is an East Coast-based veterinarian and vocal critic of the over-use of medication in horse racing, who has nonetheless described Blea's suspension as unjustified.

Papp told the TDN in January that if she were practicing in California, she would be “fearful” of having to second and triple guess “every diagnosis I made or procedure I performed.” She added that if “our livelihoods and very right to work are going to be threatened and, or punished unfairly,” then “I could not understand why anyone would want to continue being an equine practitioner in California at all.”

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