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License temporarily suspended of CHRB equine medical director

An exercise rider takes Medina Spirit for a morning workout at Del Mar.
Medina Spirit, on a morning ride at Del Mar before the Breeders’ Cup races, died Dec. 6 at Santa Anita. The fallout from the horse’s death and positive drug test following a win in the Kentucky Derby continues to swirl in horse racing and legal circles.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Dr. Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, had his veterinary license temporarily suspended on Monday by the state Veterinary Medical Board, setting up a showdown with the racing board, which plans to keep Blea in his job.

The interim suspension order, issued by Administrative Law Judge Nana Chin, indicates that the medical board’s motivation in suspending Blea was to keep him from overseeing the investigation into the death of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit. The VMB made that clear by mentioning the horse and the subsequent investigation at the beginning of its petition for suspension.

In summarizing the VMB’s argument, Chin wrote the board was concerned that Blea “could affect ongoing inquiries by the CHRB into recent sudden racehorse deaths.” The equine medical director‘s job does not require a valid veterinary license.

Discussions are ongoing within the CHRB to explore all options of keeping Blea as equine medical director, according to people with knowledge of situation but requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity regarding the matter, while at the same time navigating a situation where one state regulatory board is flaunting the ruling of another regulatory board. Adding to the intrigue, both the CHRB and VMB have the same boss. They are listed under the purview of Lourdes Castro Ramírez, the state’s secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

Blea is an employee of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which in turn loans him to the CHRB. State necropsies and drug testing are performed at UC Davis’ Maddy Lab.

“We are aware of the order, and the CHRB is in the process of determining the appropriate course of action,” said Scott Chaney, executive director of the CHRB. “As I said last week, I have known Dr. Blea for some time, and continue to support him in this difficult time.”

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Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, died at Santa Anita on Monday. Here’s what you need to know about the Bob Baffert-trained thoroughbred.

Medina Spirit died on Dec. 6 after a workout at Santa Anita. The fatality was classified as a “sudden death” because the colt died on the track and was not euthanized. The most common kind of sudden death is heart attack. While the VMB implied there was a rise of sudden deaths, the numbers have been consistent. Last year there were 18 and the average in recent years has been around 20.

Reached on Tuesday, Blea declined comment.

After winning the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit tested positive for a legal medication that is banned on race day, putting his victory in question. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has not set a hearing date or sanctioned the colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert. Attorneys for Baffert will argue that the medication, the anti-inflammatory betamethasone, was administered by ointment for a rash and that the rule is applicable only to interarticular injections.

Jessica Sieferman, executive officer of the VMB, would not comment and referred all questions to Monica Vargas, deputy director of communications for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, who did not offer substantive answers to questions about the case or the process the VMB follows.

Blea was one of three veterinarians who were served what is called an “accusation,” in this case a 27-page complaint listing eight areas of infractions. The charges are mostly minor infractions and incomplete bookkeeping. However, Blea, as equine medical director, is responsible for enforcing all rules regardless of their severity. The alleged infractions occurred before he gave up his practice and joined the CHRB on July 1.

Blea was the only one of the three charged who does not directly offer veterinary services to horses but was the only one the VMB wanted to have an emergency hearing to determine if his license should be suspended. The other veterinarians, Vince Baker and Sarah Graybill Jones, did not have an emergency license hearing and retained their licenses pending a formal hearing.

The investigation started in February 2021, before the CHRB’s vetting of Blea, which occurred last spring. The complaint was issued Dec. 17.

Medina Spirit, who died Monday at Santa Anita, was an underdog who won the Kentucky Derby. But a potential disqualification could alter how he is perceived.

The CHRB did not learn of the “accusation” until one hour after it was posted on the VMB website, according to two people with knowledge of situation but not wanting to comment because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The immediate decision to retain Blea in his current position, pending the outcome of the full investigation, fell to Chaney, although he conferred with some CHRB members individually. Sunshine laws do not allow the board to meet without a 10-day notice period. The next CHRB meeting is scheduled for Jan. 20 and the Blea situation will be brought up in closed session, which is held after the regular meeting and allows the board members to talk about personnel issues and lawsuits.

Yet another complication is that both the VMB and CHRB use deputy attorney generals as their legal representatives. However, since the VMB has already employed the state attorney, the CHRB will have to seek outside counsel if it plans to involve itself in the case.

The next step by the VMB is a formal hearing on the suspension of Blea’s license, scheduled for Jan. 21. The adjudication of the charges against him will be held within six months to a year.

In the meantime, Blea will remain equine medical director and there is nothing the veterinary board can do to change it.


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