The California Horse Racing Board circled the wagons in defense of its embattled equine medical director, Dr. Jeff Blea, during its regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Thursday.
Blea was placed on administrative leave by the CHRB this month following the suspension of his veterinary license by the California Veterinary Medicine Board. The VMB charged Blea with eight violations that include bookkeeping errors and offenses that may be considered minor in nature.
In defense of Blea, CHRB chairman Dr. Gregory Ferraro described the veterinary board’s allegations against Blea as “ill-advised and slanderous.
“Since his appointment on July 1, (Blea) has performed his duties with exceptional skill and grace,” Ferraro said. “Unfortunately, he has now become a pawn in a politically driven agenda to disparage horse racing in California.
“People behind this effort are willing to besmirch and sully Dr. Blea’s reputation to achieve their ends,” he continued. “And while they are in the process of achieving these goals, health and safety of racehorses are being compromised every day that Dr. Blea is not allowed to perform his duties.”
In their defenses of Blea, both Ferraro and vice chairman Oscar Gonzalez pointed out the significant improvements to equine safety in the state in recent years.
To that point, in his executive director’s report, Scott Chaney noted there were 71 equine deaths in state-licensed facilities in 2021, which was a 26 percent decrease from the previous year and 66 percent decrease from five years ago. He added there were 20 racing-related deaths in more than 31,000 starters last year, a 0.63 percent fatality rate.
“I believe that to be the lowest in the country. Of course, it’s difficult to say for sure as California is the most transparent in terms of reporting in the country,” Chaney said.
A formal hearing on Blea’s charges by the VMB is scheduled for Friday. On behalf of the CHRB, Gonzalez requested the veterinary board return Blea's license to good standing.
“The CHRB respectfully asks that Dr. Blea be reinstated so we can continue the important work of protecting horses and supporting the reform efforts,” Gonzalez said.
Earlier in the meeting, California Thoroughbred Trainers executive director Alan Balch provided an update on the safety task force instituted in the second half of last year. He reiterated the task force’s early work will focus on better understanding sudden deaths among horses and how to prevent catastrophic shoulder injuries with horses returning from layoffs.
Balch cited research when noting that in 20-25 percent of equine sudden deaths, no cause is ever established. He noted in sudden deaths among humans, even after an autopsy is performed, “in more than one in 10 instances the cause remains unexplained.”
However, Balch added, research among human sudden deaths has also found that nearly 20 percent of patients, most under the age of 50, carried rare genetic variants.
“We believe, therefore, that even more serious veterinary and epidemiological research must be undertaken to determine whether there are any such genetic predispositions among equines,” Balch said.
As for helping to prevent catastrophic shoulder injuries with horses returning from a layoff, Balch said the task force is aiming to make progress in the “short term.” To this end, after consulting with veterinarians and trainers at an upcoming meeting, the task force plans to create a “best practices” guide to help reduce such fatal injuries.
“Catastrophic shoulder fractures … are particularly perplexing because on the one hand, we advocate rest from training and an appropriate recovery time with any minor injury, of course, but experience and research indicates that as horses return to training following a layoff, they are especially susceptible to shoulder fractures,” Balch said.