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WASHINGTON – For weeks, officials of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration have proclaimed that three independent and "world class" veterinarians would oversee inspections to guard against horse soring at the show in Shelbyville this week.

What they didn't disclose is that one of the veterinarians never agreed to the deal and is at home in Knoxville this week — enjoying his retirement — rather than checking out horses as part of the Celebration's new Veterinary Advisory Council.

Critics call the misrepresentation a sign that the council's real purpose has more to do with politics than protecting horses as the political battle over the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act in Congress continues.

Celebration officials announced the creation of the Veterinary Advisory Council in late July to reassure the public that they were going all out to protect horses from soring. The council is charged with carrying out X-rays and blood tests on horses to detect evidence of the practice.

In an interview Wednesday, veterinarian Dallas O. Goble of Knoxville said he was offered a spot on the council and thought about accepting but then decided against it for "professional reasons." In particular, he said, it would have been hard to arrange malpractice insurance after being retired 11 years.

Goble said he notified Jerry H. Johnson, another veterinarian on the council, about his decision "a couple or three weeks ago." He said he talked to no others related to the council or the Celebration.

But in a stream of news releases and interviews over the past month, including an interview Tuesday with the Tennessean Washington Bureau, VAC spokesman Tom Blankenship continued to say the council has three members — Goble; Johnson, from Lexington, Ky.; and Phillip D. Hammock of Louisville, Ky.

In responding late Wednesday to Goble's comments, Blankenship said the Knoxville veterinarian was involved in developing protocols for identifying soring shortly after the advisory council was formed in late July. He said it was not necessary for the three men to be present at the Celebration, although Johnson has been there. Blood samples and X-rays can be gathered by others, he said.

"They do not have to oversee objective testing," Blankenship said.

But Goble, when contacted for a second time Wednesday, still said he had not been involved in any way and that he knew nothing about establishing testing protocols.

"I am not involved," he said. "I haven't been involved from the start."

Impartiality questioned

The news about Goble comes as the ability of the VAC to impartially oversee horse inspections and guard against soring — the infliction of pain on a horse's lower legs and hooves to produce the higher "Big Lick" gait — was already under fire.

Teresa Bippen, representing Friends of Sound Horses, a pro-PAST Act group, said Goble's absence from the group shows it's more about politics than horses.

"The VAC was not established to protect the horse but to provide cover for 'Big Lick' trainers, owners and the Celebration as they block the PAST Act," Bippen said.

The PAST Act, bitterly opposed by many in the walking horse industry, would significantly enhance the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ability to police soring.

The Humane Society of the United States this week released an article by Johnson, the Lexington veterinarian, published in 1992 that described the 1970 Horse Protection Act as hugely successful in eliminating soring.

Humane Society officials, who support the PAST Act, said the article was a sign Johnson shares the perspective of many horse owners that soring is a minor problem and that the 1970 law needs only tinkering, not an overhaul. Blankenship, on Tuesday, disputed the Humane Society's contention, saying Johnson's reputation was "beyond reproach."

Meanwhile, Friends of Sound Horses said their group found additional evidence raising questions about Johnson's impartiality — a comment from Celebration board member David Howard touting the veterinarian's ties to members of Congress who are fighting the PAST Act, including Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander.

On July 25, in the message board of the website walkinghorsereport.com, Howard wrote: "We are one piece of legislation from being truly out of business and equipment. These three nationally acclaimed totally independent vets were retained at the suggestion of the few Senators and Congressmen that are keeping this law from being passed. Dr. Jerry Johnson has worked with Senator Lamar Alexander prior to being retained."

In response, Jeffrey Howard, spokesman for the Performance Show Horse Association and son of David Howard, said, "I don't see the connection to impartiality."

Meanwhile, Mike Inman, chief executive officer of the Celebration, said in an interview that attendance at the event was off and that controversy over the PAST Act and soring "has contributed some."

Rainy weather in recent days also has held down crowd sizes, he said.

"I don't have the percentages yet."

Contact Paul C. Barton at pbarton@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCBarton.

Horse Protection Action Act violations resulting in suspensions of owners and/or trainers 1988-present:

State Total Percentage of All States

Tennessee 4,008 32.07%

Kentucky 1,625 13.00%

Alabama 787 6.30%

North Carolina 572 4.58%

Mississippi 540 4.32%

Source: Friends of Sound Horses tabulation of USDA records.

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