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CHRB equine medical director Jeff Blea put on administrative leave

Exercise rider Humberto Gomez takes Medina Spirit over the track during a training session ahead.
Exercise rider Humberto Gomez takes Medina Spirit over the track during a training session ahead of the Preakness Stakes on May 12, 2021, in Baltimore.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

In the latest twist to the bizarre situation surrounding the California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director, Dr. Jeff Blea has been placed on administrative leave by UC Davis pending further review of his veterinary license. Blea has not been performing the functions of EMD since Thursday after state attorneys indicated he needed a veterinary license.

The board was informed on Wednesday night that its interpretation that the equine medical director did not need a veterinarian’s license was not entirely accurate. Blea had his license suspended last Monday at the request of the California Veterinary Medical Board after an emergency hearing on Dec. 24.

Blea has been charged with eight violations, mostly minor including inadequate bookkeeping. Two other veterinarians charged at the same time did not have an emergency license review even though they are still practicing veterinarians while Blea has moved to a regulatory role and does not see patients.

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The ruling by the office of the deputy attorney general, which usually represents both the VMB and the CHRB, did not specifically say the EMD has to have a veterinarian license but that some functions of the role are “not limited to the treatment of animals.”

Blea actually works for the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which in turn loans him to the CHRB. Any short-term change in job status starts with UC Davis. John Pascoe, executive associate dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, did not return messages from The Times.

Dr. Jeff Blea will continue as equine medical director and the board is hoping this move will bring détente with the state Veterinary Medical Board.

Blea’s status with the CHRB was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the situation but did not want to be quoted because it dealt with a personnel issue. UC Davis has not made an announcement.

Blea did not want to comment on his situation.

Scott Chaney, executive director of the CHRB, also would not comment but continued to express his support for Blea.

It is expected that staff members at UC Davis will perform routine regulatory functions of the EMD while this is under review.

At the center of this action by the VMB is its belief that Blea should not oversee the necropsy and investigation into the death of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit after a workout at Santa Anita on Dec. 6. Medina Spirit tested positive for a legal medication, but not legal on race day, after the Derby.

The horse has not faced disqualification and his trainer, Bob Baffert, has not been charged with anything by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Baffert’s attorneys are contending that the medication, an antiinflammatory betamethasone, was administered through an ointment to heal a rash and the rule only deals with intraarticular injections.

Blea did not treat any of Baffert’s horses.

Adding fuel to an already combustible situation was Dr. Rick Arthur, who preceded Blea as EMD for 15 years.

“The accusation against Dr. Blea is a political hit-job,” Arthur wrote to Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, which oversees the CHRB and VMB. “For a regulatory agency to use its enforcement powers against an individual licensee for political purposes is reprehensible. We would never consider such a thing at the CHRB.”

Arthur went on to say, “I strongly recommend you have inside counsel review the obscene accusations against Dr. Blea and the politics behind their over-the-top accusations.”

While Castro Ramírez has line authority over the CHRB and VMB, they operate as almost independent organizations. Administrative and technology services are some of the things they share.

The state Veterinary Medical Board temporarily suspended the license of CHRB equine medical director Dr. Jeff Blea but he’ll keep his position.

“We’re aware of the letter, but have no comment at this time,” said Russ Heimerich, deputy secretary of communications of the BCSH.

Arthur’s sentiment underscores a growing rift between the CHRB and VMB. The CHRB did not learn about the charges against Blea until after it was posted on the VMB website. In addition, the CHRB did not learn of any investigation against Blea while it was vetting the candidate for the EMD role. Blea gave up his private practice and assumed the regulatory role on July 1 of last year.

One person familiar with regulatory practices, but not willing to use their name because of the sensitivity of the matter, said one agency is under no obligation to tell another agency of an investigation. Jessica Sieferman, executive officer of the VMB, would not speak to The Times, and a spokesperson would not answer a hypothetical on standard practices.

The next license hearing for Blea is Jan. 21. The CHRB meets on Jan. 20 where there will likely be no equine medical director’s report because the regulatory board does not currently have a person functioning in that role. The situation will most certainly be brought up in closed session, where most personnel issues and litigation are discussed.


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