By Dan Ross
California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director Jeff Blea, sidelined from that role since early January, is headed to Los Angeles County Superior Court Wednesday, seeking a stay on the California Veterinary Medical Board's interim suspension of his veterinary license.
If the court doesn't grant a stay on the interim suspension–pending a formal hearing on the merits of the veterinary board's accusations against him–Blea asks the court to determine whether in the interim he can resume his duties as equine medical director and as a member of the Anti-Doping and Medication Committee under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, according to an ex parte application filed Monday.
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. Blea's attorney, George Wallace, explained that another purpose of the legal action was to potentially delay a formal hearing on the merits of the veterinary board's accusations against Blea to allow the LA County Superior Court to weigh in first.
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. That LA County Superior Court hearing has yet to be scheduled.
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.
Early this year, the veterinary board successfully sought an interim suspension of Blea's veterinary license for a number of alleged offenses, 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.
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 leveled 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.
The formal hearing on the merits of the veterinary board's accusations has not yet been scheduled.
Monday's court filing emphasizes the highly unusual nature of the interim suspension against Blea, who hasn't practiced private veterinary medicine since assuming the equine medical director position in June of last year.
“Dr. Blea is the only veterinarian since at least 2019 that the Veterinary Medical Board has deemed to be such a threat to public safety and well-being that it has sought to suspend his license to practice without proceeding to a full hearing on the merits of its Accusation case,” the filing states.
The ex parte application also delves into the jurisdictional turf war that has emerged between the veterinary board and the CHRB. Both wield regulatory oversight of backstretch veterinarians. The question of each is: How much?
“The Veterinary Medical Board is seeking to discipline Dr. Blea for practices and procedures that all fall within the bounds of known, settled, and accepted practices within the zones that fall within the jurisdiction of the CHRB, and under which racetrack veterinarians have been operating for years with no notice from the Veterinary Medical Board that it has other, conflicting ideas about appropriate practice,” the filing states.
According to the filing, CHRB chair Greg Ferraro, who formerly served on the Veterinary Medical Board, has 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.”
Even if Blea is successful on Wednesday, however, it's unclear how UC Davis will act. The TDN asked the university if it would permit Blea to resume his equine medical director duties if a stay is issued.
A UC Davis spokesperson responded in an email that, “At this point, he remains on administrative leave. No decision beyond that can be made until we know more specifics.”