California Horse Racing Board removes doctor from Medina Spirit death investigation

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John Velazquez atop Medina Spirit competes in the 146th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit in the Preakness Stakes on May 15, 2021. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

The California Horse Racing Board, in an attempt to quell the firestorm surrounding its equine medical director, has removed Dr. Jeff Blea from the investigation surrounding the death of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit. It will now be headed by Dr. John Pascoe, executive associate dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Blea will continue as equine medical director and the board is hoping this move will bring détente with the state Veterinary Medical Board, which temporarily suspended Blea’s license Monday over concerns about him overseeing the Medina Spirit necropsy and investigation.

On Dec. 17, the VMB cited Blea with eight charges, mostly minor infractions and related to inadequate record keeping, but none related to Medina Spirit or pointing to any perceived conflict of interest. The infractions allegedly occurred when Blea was in private practice before becoming the equine medical director on July 1, 2021.

In Monday’s decision, administrative law judge Nana Chin wrote that the VMB “seeks to prevent [Blea’s] involvement, enforcement and investigation into the sudden deaths of racehorses at CHRB facilities.” The VMB argued, "The mission of the board is to protect consumers and animals by regulating licenses, promoting professional standards and diligent enforcement of the [Veterinary Medical Practice Act].”

“Dr. Blea is an excellent vet and even better human,” said Scott Chaney, executive director of the CHRB. “He wakes up every day with the goal of making horses safer. This petition is inimical to that effort.”

The effort to remove Blea from the investigation surfaced Tuesday in a series of calls between officials of the CHRB and UC Davis, Blea’s employer, which in turn lends him to the CHRB, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. On Wednesday, Blea was informed of the decision and was said to accept it.

“In my view, the allegations against Dr. Blea have yet to be proven, and as such, he should be able to serve as the EMD until the final outcome of the accusation filed against his license can be fully adjudicated through the administrative process,” said Dr. Greg Ferraro, chairman of the CHRB.

While details on Pascoe’s role are still being worked out, it’s expected that he will call on other members of the UC Davis faculty to help him. UC Davis has been consistently ranked as the best veterinary school in the country and second in the world behind the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. UC Davis is also home to the Kenneth L. Maddy Laboratory, which does all the testing for the CHRB.

Blea is the latest collateral damage in the controversy that has followed Medina Spirit since May. The 3-year-old colt won the Kentucky Derby but tested positive for betamethasone, an otherwise legal anti-inflammatory that is not allowed on race day. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to challenge the horse’s legitimacy as the winner or sanction his trainer, Bob Baffert. But Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, has banned Baffert for two years and the New York Racing Assn. is also seeking to ban the trainer over a series of medication violations.

Baffert’s attorneys contend Medina Spirit was administered an ointment to treat a rash on his hindquarters and that the zero-tolerance regulation was meant to apply only for inter-articular injections, the conventional way of administering the drug.

Medina Spirit died Dec. 6 after completing a workout at Santa Anita. He was pronounced dead on the track, meaning no euthanasia and a classification of sudden death. The majority of sudden deaths are heart-related. A mandatory necropsy and investigation are conducted after every death at a CHRB facility.

The weeks-long saga with Blea has been filled with more questions than answers, creating tension between the CHRB and VMB, even though both ultimately report to the same person, Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the state Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

It started when the CHRB was left unaware of the investigation, which started last February, into Blea as the vetting process was going on before his hiring. Then after the investigation was complete, the CHRB was unaware of the charges until after they were posted on its website. Blea also seemed to be a target of the VMB when the regulatory body went after only his license, even though he was not a veterinarian with active clients. The two other veterinarians charged at the same time were not subject to a license hearing, even though they are still practicing.

Jessica Sieferman, executive officer of the VMB, declined to speak to The Times, and a spokesperson did not have answers to these questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

The CHRB is hoping that this move will cause the VMB to reconsider its suspension of Blea’s license since the VMB’s primary objection was him overseeing the Medina Spirit investigation. The equine medical director position does not require that the person have a veterinary license, but the appearance of having a medical director with no license is one the CHRB would rather avoid.

The CHRB will take up the Blea situation in closed session at the end of the board’s next scheduled meeting Jan. 20. Blea has a formal hearing over his license Jan. 21 with the VMB.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.