With the Run for the Roses just around the corner, here’s an interesting—and potentially lucrative—Derby party bet: How many of the 137 Derby winners listed on this year’s official mint julep glasses actually crossed the finish line first?
Hint: "All of them" is the wrong answer.
The 1968 Derby came down to a rousing stretch duel between favored Forward Pass and second-choice Dancer’s Image. Dead last when the field went by the stands for the first time, jockey Bobby Ussery and Dancer’s Image weaved through horses on the final turn and they were challenging for the lead at the top of the stretch. Under a masterful ride from Ussery, who dropped his whip with a quarter-mile to go and finished the race with a strong hand ride, Dancer’s Image was a convincing winner over the favorite.
Dancer’s Image was the best horse that day, no doubt about it. Boston automobile dealer Peter Fuller had a winner with his first Derby runner, Ussery joined an elite group of jockeys with back-to-back Derby winners (he won the previous year with longshot Proud Clarion), and Calumet Farm was denied its eighth Derby win.
Or so it seemed at the time.
Three days later, Churchill Downs President Wathan Knebelkamp stunned the racing world—and a good bit of the world whose interest in Thoroughbreds began and ended on Derby Day—when he announced that Dancer’s Image had failed a routine post-race drug test. It was front page news, above the fold.
The horse’s urine sample allegedly contained traces of phenylbutazone ("Bute"), an analgesic medication that was prohibited on race day in Kentucky at the time. Ironically, Bute was legal in Kentucky a few years before the 1968 Derby and a few years after, and today it’s widely used for horses racing at tracks across the United States.
There was some confusion about whether Dancer’s Image would lose the Derby winner’s share of the purse, his status as first-place finisher in the race, and the gold winner’s trophy. The rules of racing in Kentucky at the time specified that a positive drug test would result in redistribution of the purse, but the rules also were clear that the order of finish would not be affected.
Calumet Farm, apparently, would get the farm’s eighth Derby victory after all.
Or so it seemed at the time.
Send in the Lawyers
Some traditionalists viewed Peter Fuller as an interloper from the North, and probably hoped he’d fold his tent, go back to Boston, and leave the Derby spoils to Calumet Farm. He didn’t. Never a man to duck a fight, Fuller mounted a series of legal challenges that questioned the reliability of the drug testing procedures in place in Kentucky during the late 1960s and the competence of the racing chemist who called the "positive" on Dancer’s Image.
"I do not feel in any way that I am a poor sport," Fuller told the racing commission about his decision to question the test results. "I have to clear my horse’s name."
Fuller lost in administrative hearings before the Churchill Downs stewards and the racing commission, won in Franklin Circuit Court, then lost again when the case made its way to the Court of Appeals. His legal team then argued that even if the rules took the purse away, Fuller still was entitled to the gold trophy, but he lost again. Fuller’s legal fees, by this time, were more than double the winner’s share of the Derby purse.
The most exciting two minutes in sports had become a slogging marathon. Five years after Dancer’s Image crossed the finish line ahead of Forward Pass, the winner’s trophy finally was hand-delivered to Calumet Farm. Hardly anyone noticed. The gold trophy now resides, along with Calumet’s other trophies, in the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.
No one ever had challenged a positive drug test with the fervor and resources that Fuller brought to the table, and although he lost the battle, he eventually won the war. The legal controversy produced one of the most important administrative law cases in the state and the rules of racing were rewritten in the aftermath of the dispute.
A Forgotten Story
Dancer’s Image today is little more than an asterisk in racing’s record books, and that’s not fair to either the horse or his owner. If you'd like to know more, Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, is the first thorough investigation into the race and the legal wranglings that followed. It recently won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2011.
Is the book mistitled? Does anyone remember Dancer’s Image and the ‘68 Derby?