On May 4, 1968, Dancer’s Image won the 94th Kentucky Derby with a stirring stretch drive.
Three days later, Dancer’s Image lost the Kentucky Derby. Owner Peter Fuller’s gray was disqualified by stewards after a post-race drug test showed traces of a banned pain suppressant in the horse’s urine.
On Dec. 11, 1970, Dancer’s Image again became the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner when a Franklin County circuit court judge ruled in favor of Fuller’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification.
Alas, on April 28, 1972, Dancer’s Image lost the 1968 Derby for good. The Kentucky Court of Appeals — then the commonwealth’s highest court — overruled the circuit court and allowed the disqualification to stand.
Last Saturday at Churchill Downs, for only the second time in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby, the race winner was again disqualified.
The controversial decision by track stewards to take down Maximum Security for impeding at least two rivals and to elevate runner-up Country House to first place will long be debated.
Last weekend’s upheaval also turned a retrospective spotlight on the only other Kentucky Derby victor ever disqualified.
Fifty-one years later, what happened to Dancer’s Image remains poignant, in part, because how the banned substance got into the horse’s urine sample remains a mystery.
“To this day, no one can say for sure what happened,” said Milton C. Toby, author of the book “Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.”
‘Clear my horse’s name’
In the weeks leading up to the 1968 Kentucky Derby, it seemed uncertain that Dancer’s Image would even run.
Like his sire, Native Dancer, the gray horse was plagued by chronically sore ankles. At Churchill Downs, Dancer’s Image trainer Lou Cavalaris Jr. had the horse all but living in a tub filled with ice water seeking to ease the soreness.
On either the Sunday or the Monday before the Derby, Dr. Alex Harthill, a prominent but controversial Louisville veterinarian, treated Dancer’s Image with Butazolidin, a pain killer.
At that time, it was legal at Churchill Downs to use “bute” to aid in training, but not in races. It was supposed to take around 72 hours for the drug to pass through a horse’s system.
If administered properly, that should have left Dancer’s Image clean for the Derby.
With jockey Bobby Ussery aboard, Dancer’s Image was bumped coming out of the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby and dropped to last in the field of 14.
Starting around the three-fourths pole, Ussery asked Dancer’s Image to go and the pair roared through the field.
Afterward, a urine sample was drawn from the Kentucky Derby winner. Later that night, it was tested by a state racing chemist in a mobile laboratory at Churchill Downs.
For the connections of Dancer’s Image, the glow from winning the Kentucky Derby lasted only days.
On the following Tuesday, Churchill Downs President Wathen Knebelkamp announced that because of a positive test for Butazolidin, Dancer’s Image had been placed last and runner-up Forward Pass was now considered the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner.
Owner Fuller was a New England businessman whose father, Alvan T. Fuller, had served as governor of Massachusetts from 1925-29. Trainer Cavalaris, a Hamilton, Ohio, native, had worked in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Both men denied knowledge of any pre-Derby chicanery. Fuller lodged an appeal of the disqualification with the Kentucky Racing Commission.
“I am making this appeal because I know I didn’t do anything wrong (nor did) the members of my organization,” Fuller said. “I feel like I have to find out what went wrong. I have to clear my horse’s name.”
Theories of how the banned substance ended up in the post-Derby urine sample of Dancer’s Image were wide-ranging.
Two involved Martin Luther King Jr.
Dancer’s Image won the 1968 Governor’s Gold Cup in Maryland shortly after the April 4 assassination of the civil rights leader. An admirer of King, Fuller donated the entire winner’s share, more than $60,000, to his widow, Coretta.
The year before his death, King had led a fair-housing protest in Louisville. There had been talk then that activists might disrupt the 1967 Kentucky Derby as part of their protests (they did not).
Before the 1968 Derby, Fuller’s act of generosity toward Coretta King was reported by CBS Radio. “I’ve always wondered if what happened to the horse could have come in retaliation for my support of King,” Fuller told Bill Christine of The Los Angeles Times in 1988.
A different King theory involved J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
“The FBI for years staged heavy-handed smear campaigns to discredit activists in the civil rights movement, including Jean Seberg, a white actress who was a vocal supporter of the Black Panthers,” said Toby, an attorney in Georgetown. “Hoover also worked tirelessly to marginalize Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the civil rights movement.”
Hoover was a horse racing fan, Toby said, and would have known Fuller was the owner of Dancer’s Image.
“There’s no evidence that (a FBI plot against Dancer’s Image) happened and it’s probably just another crackpot conspiracy theory, but stranger things have happened,” Toby said.
Forward Pass, the favorite beaten by Dancer’s Image in the 1968 Derby, ran in the iconic devil’s red and blue racing colors of Calumet Farm.
Winner of seven Kentucky Derbys from 1941-1958, Calumet was iconic in the commonwealth. Might someone have “gotten to” Dancer’s Image — or his urine sample — to help Calumet Farm return to Derby glory?
In the aftermath of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, the actions of Harthill, the veterinarian, came under scrutiny.
Following the 1968 Preakness, a reporter for The Courier-Journal (as the Louisville newspaper was known then) was investigating the unanswered questions from the Derby. He approached Harthill at Churchill Downs, stuck out his right hand and began to introduce himself.
While shaking hands, Harthill used his left hand to uncork a roundhouse punch that dropped the reporter, Billy Reed, onto his back.
Harthill died in 2005. Did “The Derby Doc” hold the key to unlocking the untold story of Dancer’s Image?
If so, “he took the knowledge to the grave,” said Bob Heleringer, a Louisville attorney whose maternal grandfather, Leo O’Donnell, was one of the stewards who originally disqualified the 94th Derby winner.
A four-year saga
Fuller’s legal team fleetingly got the Kentucky Derby victory back for Dancer’s Image.
On Dec. 11, 1970, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Henry Meigs ruled the state’s equine drug tests were “inadequate and contradictory.” The following day’s headline in The Courier-Journal proclaimed “Court rules Dancer’s Image won 1968 Kentucky Derby.”
Heleringer, whose book “Equine Regulatory Law” includes a chapter on the legal battle over the 94th Derby, said the racing industry dreaded the precedent if Fuller prevailed.
“The fear was any owner who ever had a horse that tested positive would get a lawyer, go to court and cite the (Dancer’s Image case) to get their disqualification thrown out, too,” he said.
Refusing to accept defeat, the Kentucky Racing Commission appealed to the state Court of Appeals.
On April 28, 1972, the 1968 Kentucky Derby finally ended.
Overruling the lower court, the Court of Appeals held that there was “substantial evidence” to support the racing commission’s original ruling.
The disqualification of Dancer’s Image was restored. Beaten on the race track, Forward Pass nevertheless became Calumet Farm’s eighth Derby “winner.”
Fuller had spent more than $200,000 fighting for a winner’s purse of $122,600.
“Peter Fuller was a wonderful man,” Heleringer said. “But he sort of lived the rest of his life in the service of his horse, defending it, fighting to clear its name.”
If you are looking for similarities between the Kentucky Derby disqualification of 1968 and the one that happened last Saturday, here’s one.
The emotions that seem to be driving Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West, toward the legal system in a bid to overturn the ruling that stripped from their horse North American Thoroughbred racing’s greatest victory would likely feel hauntingly familiar to Fuller.
A year before Fuller died at age 89 in 2012, Toby visited him in New Hampshire.
“His memory for what happened in the 1968 Derby was incredible,” Toby said. “He remembered every last detail. He never got over what happened to Dancer’s Image.”