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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

UC Davis equine medical director temporarily suspended, placed on administrative leave

Events since Jeff Blea’s suspension reveal divisions between the California Veterinary Medical Board and the California Horse Racing Board

By CAROLINE VAN ZANT — campus@theaggie.org

Jeff Blea, jointly appointed as the equine medical director at the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) and at UC Davis, was placed on administrative leave after his veterinary license was suspended on Jan. 3. 

His license suspension followed an emergency hearing called by the California Veterinary Medical Board (VMB), and formal arguments were heard on Jan. 21.

On Dec. 17, the VMB issued a formal accusation outlining eight causes of discipline against Blea. The accusations ranged from minor charges of sloppy recordkeeping to “dispensing dangerous drugs without medical necessity.” As noted in the complaint, “dangerous drugs” are defined under California law as any drug that cannot be obtained without a prescription.

The infractions allegedly occurred when Blea was working in private practice, but he left after accepting the equine medical director position in July 2021. When The California Aggie requested an interview with Blea on Jan. 23, he declined to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing legal case.

In his position, Blea would have overseen the necropsy of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, but, due to the nature of the horse’s death and the allegations against Blea, the VMB asserted in a Dec. 21 filing that Blea’s involvement in the investigation would be “a clear conflict of interest.” The three-year-old horse collapsed after a workout at Santa Anita on Dec. 6 in what has been classified as a “sudden death” by the CHRB. He had tested positive for a drug that was banned on race day that cast doubt on his Kentucky Derby victory in May 2021. His trainer has stated that it was never given to him.

In response, the CHRB announced that John Pascoe, the executive associate dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, will replace Blea in the investigation. Pascoe did not respond to a request for comment. 

UC Davis has sufficient personnel to ensure that the obligations of the position are fulfilled,” UC Davis News and Media Relations Specialist Amy Quinton said via email.

The series of events has reportedly been characterized as infighting between the CHRB and the VMB. Though both organizations fall under the umbrella of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, they operate independently. While the VMB is attempting to rescind Blea’s license and remove him from his position as equine medical director, the CHRB is defending its employee

At the Jan. 21 hearing, the CHRB argued that the VMB’s actions constitute “agency overreach,” and that it has no role in determining the equine medical director. The CHRB, however, was denied a motion to intervene on Blea’s behalf.

George Wallace, the attorney representing Blea, takes issue with the VMB’s characterization of his client. 

“He is one of the finest equine veterinarians, certainly in California, and probably in the country,” Wallace said. 

Seeking an interim suspension order is reserved as “an unusual and extreme measure” taken to restrict the practice of veterinarians who present a clear danger to public safety, according to Wallace.

“[The interim suspension order] is not appropriate, particularly since he’s not in practice, for someone like Jeff Blea,” Wallace said.

The VMB has never sought an interim suspension order against any practitioner except for Blea.

Prominent figures in the veterinary community have expressed support for Blea. He is “an exceptional individual — high integrity, high ethics and very high standard of practice,” Rick Arthur, Blea’s predecessor in his role as equine medical director, said. 

In a letter to the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency Secretary Castro Ramirez, Arthur called the VMB’s treatment of Blea “a political hit-job” and called on the secretary to investigate. 

Rather than any misconduct on Blea’s part, Arthur said the issue is that “veterinarians in ambulatory practice have challenges to meet the California Veterinary Medical Board regulations that are designed for dog and cat hospitals.”

Administrative law Judge Nana Chin is expected to rule on Blea’s license within 30 days of the Jan. 21 hearing. Further down the line, Wallace predicts a hearing to determine the merits of the allegations made by the VMB, which could take several weeks.

Written by: Caroline Van Zant  — campus@theaggie.org


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