Owner Sues Mandella and Hughes Over Heel Nerving

Trainer Richard Mandella and owner B. Wayne Hughes have been named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by a Thoroughbred owner in Arizona for allegedly failing to disclose that a surgical procedure had been performed on a horse claimed from Hughes and Mandella by the plaintiff.

Arizona-based owner Leslie W. Blake brought the action in Los Angeles Superior Court March 27. The suit also names Hollywood Park, Inc., as a defendant for failing to maintain a list of horses that had the surgery.

The procedure, a digital surgical neurectomy, commonly known as heel nerving, was performed on the horse Refinery July 15, 2006, by Dr. Rick Arthur. On Dec. 2, 2006, Refinery ran in a $50,000 claiming race at Hollywood Park, and was claimed from owner Hughes and trainer Mandella by Blake, through trainer Dan MacFarlane. When Blake and MacFarlane brought the horse to Arizona and entered him in a stakes race at Turf Paradise, they were informed Refinery could not run in the state, which bans any horse that has been heel nerved.

There is no such ban against the procedure in California. "I will not take a beating on this because I have not done anything wrong," stated Mandella. "We always thought he was a better horse than he showed, so we did a nuclear scan that showed a cyst-like spot at the end of his coffin bone. We thought the procedure might make a difference. The fact is, he ran just about the same after the procedure as he had before." Refinery was claimed in his fifth race back following the procedure.

"It has always been legal in California, and the procedure is no danger to the horse," said Mandella. "I have been the chairman of the necropsy study since its inception here 15 years ago, and I've never heard the words 'heel nerve' come up in any discussion about why horses break down. And we study 200-300 cases a year. In addition, in my 32 years of training, I've never correlated a horse breaking down with heel nerving. It's like getting a root canal for a tooth. It doesn't mean you can't taste or feel your lips, it means the tooth that was hurting doesn't hurt anymore. There's just a small portion of the foot they can't feel, but they know where their foot is going." Mandella added that Refinery's problem was uncommon, adding that he's only tried it on "a couple" of horses in his training career.

In an April 5 release, California Horse Racing Board executive director Ingrid Fermin issued a statement that after an investigation into the case, "the matter is to be closed without the filing of an enforcement action...We are satisfied that the partial loss of sensation to Refinery due to the posterior digital neurectomy would not endanger the safety of any horse or rider."

The CHRB investigation came after Blake notified the board of the situation in January.

Blake's suit states that "Hughes and Mandella knowingly engaged in a scheme to conceal the heel nerve surgery in order to prevent prospective buyers from becoming aware of the surgery." It claims that Arthur "performed the surgery without the prior consent of the CHRB; failed to disclose to Hollywood Park, Inc., the fact of the heel nerve surgery; and failed to ensure that Hollywood Park, Inc., maintained a list of horses who had heel nerve surgery, so as to inform prospective buyers in claiming races of such condition."

Refinery, now 4, is by Victory Gallop out of the Slew o' Gold mare Sugar Is Gold. He was purchased by Hughes at the 2005 Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale for $425,000. Through 2006, he had won three of 11 starts and earned $123,400. He has not raced since being claimed by Blake.