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Law Firm’s Specialty Practice Serves Local Equine Enclave

One would expect the San Diego horse industry to support a thriving law practice considering its legal complexities, from insurance liability issues to tax and estate planning as well as a myriad of environmental issues associated with managing livestock.

But according to legal experts, it’s a relatively untapped resource for law firms looking to diversify.

Of the 700,000 horses stabled in California, according to industry analysts, 300,000 are located here.

According to accounting firm Deloitte, the state’s multifaceted horse industry, including racing, breeding and ranch management, employed 311,100 people and produced an economic impact of $7 billion in 2005.

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The laws that regulate the industry run the gamut from federal gambling statutes governing racing to state and county water quality standards. In short, they are as diverse as the industry itself, said Cyndy Day-Wilson, an attorney in the San Diego office of Best Best & Krieger LLP.

“The last time I was looking, there were 300,000 horses in San Diego County alone,” said Day-Wilson, who specializes in environmental and equine law. “There are a lot of facilities. We also have big-time, big-time horse people , Olympians, trainers and pretty high-powered breeders.

Last summer, Best Best & Krieger, which has 40 attorneys in San Diego and 200 statewide, formed an Equine Practice Group, spearheaded by four associates who specialize in environmental law and business formation.

“We basically looked at other firms similar to our size and what we do, and we didn’t see anyone else that had this specialty,” said Lindsay Puckett, a fellow environmental and equine lawyer on the team. “We thought it fit well into our existing practice areas.”

The team, for example, can start a case and also draw from the expertise of other lawyers in the firm to walk a client through the entire process of forming and managing an equine-related business: acquiring property for a horse facility; forming a corporation or other legal entity; assisting with estate planning, horse syndication and insurance liability; handling employment issues with groomers; and getting projects through the state environmental codes, Puckett said.

“The sky is the limit on the breadth of issues related to equine law,” she said.


Robust Agribusiness

As an agribusiness, San Diego’s horse industry remains robust, from equestrian centers to show horse events and Thoroughbred racing.

“I think there are more and more people (riding), and more people that aren’t ultra-wealthy,” said Sarah Allen, owner of Sarah Allen Horse and Rider Training at Sun Ranch, which stables an average of 60-70 horses a day in Bonsall. “More people who rode as children are coming back.”

While Allen says riding in the county isn’t as easy as it once was , property owners don’t allow riders to cross onto private property for insurance reasons and accident premiums are rising for equestrian centers , the region is still relatively horse-friendly.

“I think the days of everyone owning 20-acre lots are gone, but as far as keeping horses in the county it’s fine,” she said. “There was that fear 10 years ago, people really worried there would be nowhere to ride or keep their horses. I think that’s calmed down.”

Drew Couto, president of Thoroughbred Owners of California and a former equine attorney, said racing is experiencing a renaissance.

New technologies such as synthetic track surfaces, photos taken at multiple camera angles and automated betting have improved racing.

“We’re at a transition point in racing , where for the longest time it was technology averse and behind the times,” said Couto, who lobbies lawmakers and regulatory bodies on issues affecting Thoroughbreds.

“You have a myriad of other contractual and business legal issues that touch all of us every day,” said Couto.

“The law is quite intertwined. Each segment has its own special, unique legal issues and regulatory issues,” he added. “There are plenty of opportunities for lawyers to deal with issues in this industry.”

The county has also begun to more strictly enforce environmental regulations for handling waste runoff, said Leigh Ann Howard, general manager of San Luis Rey Downs training facility in Bonsall, who educates farm managers on compost handling.

“I started going to the educational programs they put on for the nurseries because it became real clear they would eventually start regulating the horse farms,” said Howard.

Now inspectors and industry folks will hold seminars at farms around San Diego to talk about how to recycle compost, for example, rather than throwing it into the creek.

“That’s what this is about , keeping runoff from running off,” said Howard. “And if it has to run off it goes through silt fences that clean the fecal material.”


Yearlong Training

Enthusiasts attribute San Diego’s large horse population to 300 days of sunlight, which allows for yearlong equestrian training, as well as a competitive Thoroughbred circuit and scenic trails for amateur riders.

“Obviously, the weather has a lot to do with it. It’s a great climate to raise a horse,” said Doug Burge, executive vice president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association in Arcadia.

Attorney Bing Bush, who specializes in equine law, said locating his practice near the Del Mar Fairgrounds allows him to visit with clients such as jockeys and owners.

“My client base flows through here pretty regularly. Everyone comes through,” said Bush, who owns shares of several Thoroughbreds and grew up in Kentucky, exercising and training race horses in college.

He said most of his work relates to ownership issues, contracts and leases as well as estate planning. He also represents jockeys who are challenged by fellow riders and racing officials for committing infractions during the race.

Often, horse racing jockeys can be cited and suspended for several days , which can be disputed before the state Racing Board.

“I represent about two-thirds of the jockeys on the Southern California circuit,” he said.


Active Riders

The fledgling equine specialty at Best Best & Krieger was formed last summer by a group of attorneys who were also active riders.

“We came together because we have knowledge of horses and love horses, so when you take on a client it’s helpful to understand them,” said Day-Wilson.

“People who have horses like to deal with people who understand horses,” said Day-Wilson, who keeps four horses , two Thoroughbreds and two American Paint Horses , stabled at the 17-acre Willow Glen Equestrian Centre in El Cajon. “For most people it’s more than a business, they’re their pets, part of the family.”

She now assists other horse owners with environmental issues associated with managing large corralled areas of livestock, like water quality permits and renewable resources.

“These are issues people have in the industry, whether facilities, owner or trainer,” she said. “There are whole growth areas using manure, specifically methane, as an energy resource.”

Coordinating smaller farms , to get their manure to central processing areas that transform methane into energy for sale on the state power grid , will be part of the green future of the equine industry as well as Best Best & Krieger’s equine law practice, Day-Wilson said.

The firm is just beginning to promote its equine law practice, said Puckett.

“We don’t have a huge book of business that’s just equine law, but it’s amazing how many people either have something to do with the industry or friends or family connected to it in some way,” said Puckett. “When we started doing this, in our own firm we discovered the huge networking resource aspect of it.”

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