Dr. Jeff Blea has had a lot of time to try to understand what has happened to him during the past year while taking his daily four- to six-mile walks around the Rose Bowl, listening mostly to Eric Church, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp.
“They tell stories about life,” Blea said. “Everybody goes through things in life and the goal is to come out better.”
Blea is hoping those song lyrics will reflect his reality when he returns to work Wednesday as equine medical director (EMD) of the California Horse Racing Board after negotiating a settlement with the California Veterinary Medical Board (VMB). Blea has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 11 after the VMB suspended his license accusing him of multiple violations, many of which were nothing more than bookkeeping errors when he was in private practice.
Blea will be on probation for three years, have to go to continuing education in regard to record keeping and pay the VMB $131,464 over a 30-month period as reimbursement for the cost of their investigation. As the EMD, Blea has moved from the world of practicing veterinarian to regulatory veterinarian, meaning he no longer see horses as clients.
He technically works for UC Davis, from which the CHRB contracts his services.
Blea’s case has been baffling to most in the California horse racing community, given that the infractions he is accused of rarely result in a suspended license. Additionally, the CHRB and VMB are under the same government umbrella of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, but the CHRB was never notified of alleged infractions by their chief equine medical officer during the investigation.
“The fact that the vet board went for a suspension of license was unheard of,” Blea said. “There is obviously an agenda there. If I hadn’t been EMD, I would not have been suspended.”
There are six other Southern California veterinarians and three in Northern California that have accusations against them but none had their license suspended.
Blea has suspicions about why he believes he was targeted but, for now, isn’t willing to name names or discuss motives.
The VMB, in response to The Times, acknowledged through a spokesperson that Blea has “a stipulated settlement and authorizes Dr. Blea to practice medicine under a three-year probationary period with various terms and conditions.” It did not add any other information about any of the charges, conditions or terms.
Still, despite having his world turned upside down the past nine months, Blea remains upbeat and positive.
“A silver lining is that it allowed me to spend more time with my family, my wife, my two daughters and two dogs. (springer spaniels named Ross and Rizzo after Chicago Cubs players),” Blea said. “I’ve got to go to all their school functions and sporting events — softball and cross country.
“I went to visit colleges with my daughter. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be able to do that. Personally, it’s been very good to have time the time to spend with family.”
It isn’t as if Blea has not kept up with the industry. He also watched voluminous amounts of races on television and checked Equibase and the trade publications daily.
“You have to deal with things proactively,” Blea said. “I kept up with things through the industry press. I attended [remotely through audiocast] the CHRB meetings as a member of the public. It allowed me to stay relevant with current events, especially in California. I caught up reading a lot of journals too.
“I also occupied some time fixing things, painting things and building things. Things I’ve put off for the last 30 years. It was important to stay mentally and physically active. Despite being so busy, it was also frustrating.”
“Now that I’m a public servant, I have an ‘X’ on my back, and they went for it. But, I have my dignity and I can sleep at night.”
— CHRB equine medical director Jeff Blea
Blea was deep into trying to find out why there was an uptick in “sudden deaths,” often associated with cardiac events, when his license was suspended.
“I definitely want to continue with that,” Blea said. “I want to get back to work because there are a lot of things I want to do. I would like to continue pushing forward with the safety regulations to make racing safer and better. I want to work with HISA [Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority] and help the transition so that the program becomes accepted.”
HISA hopes to become fully integrated nationally Jan. 1 when its medication rules go into effect.
“Something good has to come of my situation,” Blea said. “Maybe some collaborative interactions between the vet board and CHRB can happen. Without it, it could affect in a negative way how veterinarians treat horses on the race track and on the performance track. Without it, the one who loses is the horse.
“There needs to be an understanding of the equine practice. Practioners need to be able to take care of horses in a proper way without fear of losing their license. Let’s talk about the issues and figure out a solution. Practioners want to comply.”
This is not a new issue in equine medicine. Dr. Rick Arthur, who retired as the longtime EMD and was replaced by Blea, has often spoken about how rules regarding veterinary practice are more suited to those who treat dogs and cats than herd animals such as horses.
Blea left a lucrative private practice to take the job of EMD, but despite the turmoil of the last year doesn’t regret his decision.
“When all this happened, it made no sense, and it still makes no sense,” Blea said. “Now that I’m a public servant, I have an ‘X’ on my back, and they went for it. But, I have my dignity and I can sleep at night. I’m still the same person. I didn’t at all question why I took this [job].
“I’m going to come out standing up and continue to work to enhance the industry and make it better for participants and horses.”
Blea has received steadfast support from the CHRB and UC Davis during this process, along with many of the state and national veterinary trade organizations.
“Dr. Blea has dedicated his life to the care of horses,” said Scott Chaney, executive director of the CHRB. “I’ve known him to be a person of integrity but more than that, the grace and professionalism he has demonstrated throughout this ordeal is impressive.”
Blea’s first task Wednesday is to meet with his probation officer at 9 a.m. for an intake hearing. He then plans to call John Pascoe, his boss at UC Davis, CHRB chair Gregory Ferraro and Chaney to express his appreciation for their support. Then he’ll start calling others to let them know he’s back.
Blea had a familiar refrain repeated often by people who have gone through difficult times.
“You really realize who your friends are. That was a good thing.”