A Derby won, Derby lost

Updated: May 5, 2012, 3:02 AM ET
By Terry Conway | Special to ESPN.com

Dancer's Image wearing roses.National Museum of Racing and Hall of FameDancer's Image did get to wear the roses of a Kentucky Derby champion.

Peter Fuller could take a punch. A New England Golden Gloves champion, he won 50 of 55 bouts, 30 by knockouts. But none of the blows by his pugilist opponents could match the crushing hit Fuller took in May of 1968.

On a brilliant spring afternoon at Churchill Downs, Fuller's strapping grey colt Dancer's Image was weaving his way through 13 rivals when jockey Bobby Ussery lost his stick at the three-sixteenths pole. It didn't matter. With a vigorous hand ride Dancer's Image surged to the lead in the final furlong and drew clear, winning by a length and a half in the 94th running of the Kentucky Derby.

A beaming Peter Fuller was handed the $5,000 gold Derby trophy in the winner's circle by Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn. As customary, the sparkling trophy was then sent to the Derby's jeweler to be engraved. Fuller would never touch the trophy again.

Three days later, Churchill Downs president Walter Knebelkamp announced Dancer's Image had traces of phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug, in his bloodstream during the race. Runner-up Forward Pass was declared the winner. Dancer's Image was placed last -- the only disqualification in Derby history.

"I was stunned, absolutely stunned." Fuller said in an interview years later. "This sounds silly, but I felt bad for the horse. He earned the win in the biggest race in the world and they took his title away."

The scandal rocked the industry. Conspiracy theories erupted. Reputations were sullied. A tortuous court battle would drag on for more than five years. Thirty-one months after his original run for the roses, a Kentucky court declared Dancer's Image the rightful winner, only to see that decision overturned on appeal in April 1972. Fuller never collected the winner's purse of $122,600.

I was stunned, absolutely stunned. This sounds silly, but I felt bad for the horse. He earned the win in the biggest race in the world and they took his title away.

-- Peter Fuller, owner of Dancer's Image
"I have to clear my horse's name," Fuller repeatedly told the racing commissioners in 1968.

This spring marks the 44th anniversary of history's most controversial Kentucky Derby. Today, there are still more questions than answers.

In 1903, Peter Fuller's father, Alvan T., became the first authorized Packard automobile dealer in the country and shortly after the first Cadillac distributor, then later was elected governor of Massachusetts from 1925 to 1929. The senior Fuller never cashed a paycheck, leaving them to his sons as what he called "souvenirs of my public service."

A fiercely independent man of compassion and principle, Alvan T. was a tough act to follow. After battling health issues as a young boy, Peter began wrestling as a teenager and later launched an impressive boxing career. He belonged to the Algonquin Club and sat on the boards of Boston College and Boston University. On the death of his father Fuller inherited an estate of $12 million.

Peter Fuller was introduced to racing when he attended a 1954 Belmont paddock sale and bought a mare named Michikee. Six days later she won a race, and he was hooked. Within three years Fuller operated a racing stable of 18 horses, and gradually shifted from claiming racehorses to breeding them on his 200-acre farm in North Hampton, N.H.

In 1958, Fuller claimed Noor's Image, a former stakes runner, for $5,000.

Six years later Fuller bred the mare to Native Dancer (the world's top stud fee, $20,000), who was sired by Polynesian, the great 1945 Kentucky Derby winner who laid the foundation for modern American breeding syndicates. The famed "Grey Ghost" won 21 of 22 races and equally excelled as a stallion at Alfred G. Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm in Maryland. Fuller named the colt Alvan T. to honor his late father.

The frisky colt was the spitting image of Native Dancer. He also inherited his troublesome ankles. When Fuller's trainer, Lou Cavalaris, spotted the colt's weak ankles he recommended Fuller put him in the yearling sale at Hialeah. Fuller reluctantly entered the colt. He also petitioned the Jockey Club to change the colt's name to Dancer's Image.

"Not only was I selling a colt I loved, I was selling a colt named for my father," Fuller recalled. "My wife, Joan, kept asking me, why do you want to sell him? He's so beautiful."

Fuller bought him back for $26,000.

The colt broke his maiden at Woodbine Racecourse and in a tough six-month juvenile campaign Dancer's Image started 15 times, closing out his season winning by a nose in the Maryland Futurity Stakes. Each morning Cavalaris' sad brown eyes inspected the colt's tender ankles, while his hands rubbed and then treated them with a variety of paints and liniment braces as well as bandages and tubs and tubs of ice.

At the start of the colt's 3-year-old season Cavalaris eliminated the blinkers, which allowed the colt to relax and rally from far off the pace to make a dramatic dash down the stretch. In early March, with Bobby Ussery in the irons, Dancer's Image nearly set a track record in the $100,000 Governor's Gold Cup Derby prep race at Bowie Racetrack. After the race, Fuller turned down a $1 million cash offer for the horse.

A month later Dancer's Image faced his toughest competition in the Wood Memorial, where he rallied from far back to score an impressive three-quarter-length victory. Dancer's Image would be the first starter in the Kentucky Derby for both Fuller and Cavalaris.

Fuller showed up in Louisville with a talented colt and as an unwelcomed Yankee. A few days after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Fuller had donated the winner's purse of the Governor's Gold Cup to his widow, Coretta Scott King. Fuller did so without fanfare, but the gift became public knowledge at the Wood Memorial after a television announcer mentioned it.

King had threatened to disrupt the Derby in 1967 due to a Louisville open housing ordinance that was voted down. The Derby Parade was canceled over fears of riots. Fuller's gift sparked a backlash of letters, many with racist, vicious threats.

As for Dancer's Image, he faced formidable foes in Calumet Farm's Forward Pass and his puffy right front ankle that was especially sore following the Wood victory. The clear favorite heading into the Derby, Forward Pass, trained by Henry Forrest, had triumphed in the Hibiscus Stakes, the Everglades Stakes, the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes, the premier Derby prep race. Calumet Farm was confident of picking up its eighth Derby trophy.

As the race approached, the biggest worry in Fuller's mind was his horse's health. When Dancer's Image tweaked his right front ankle in a workout, Dr. Alex Harthill, the famous "Derby Vet," administered a therapeutic dose of four grams of phenylbutazone six days before the race. Universally known as "bute," it is classified as a pain killer effective in alleviating inflammation of the joints.

At the time it was illegal for use on horses during a race in Kentucky (though not in other racing jurisdictions), but legal for use at other times. Conventional wisdom held that it would take 72 hours for the drug to be purged from the animal's system, so theoretically twice as much time was allowed as necessary for the horse to be drug-free on Derby Day.

Testing of the Derby winner was considered just a formality by the rules.

The funny thing is bute was legal in Kentucky the year before the race and the year after.

-- Peter Fuller, owner of Dancer's Image
The 1968 race changed that forever. After testing a sample of Dancer's Image's saliva and urine, the racing chemist ruled a positive test. The stewards accepted it without question. Fuller unleashed his attorneys. They argued repeatedly that the chemist was not credible and the testing procedures were so flawed that the test results were unreliable.

Dr. Harthill, who died in 2005, was a lightning rod for controversy throughout his career. Was he involved in giving the horse another dose of bute?

"I have no idea," Fuller replied. "As far as Dr. Harthill was concerned the horse was in his barn and he wanted him to win -- in my opinion. As far as we're concerned the only time Dancer's Image had bute [that week] was the [Sunday] before the race.

"The funny thing is bute was legal in Kentucky the year before the race and the year after."

The stewards passed the buck to the state racing commission, leaving behind a stream of unanswered questions about the disqualification of Dancer's Image.

Why after the race did the stewards request only two drug tests among the runners -- Dancer's Image and fifth-place finisher Kentucky Sherry? How did the stewards justify taking a win away from one horse that had been drug tested, and giving it to one that wasn't?

Was the urine sample tainted? Did someone sprinkle crushed-up tablets of bute into the horse's feed? Was there pressure to crown Forward Pass yet another Derby champion for Calumet Farm, a racing giant in those days? Was Dancer's Image set up as retribution for Fuller's support of Dr. King? Why was there limited security around Dancer Image's barn? Was it a gambling fix?

Today, the mystery still awaits an answer.

As a youngster Dancer's Image used to roam a pasture at old Runnymeade Farm.

Today, horses still graze contentedly, but visitors also find a timeworn billboard there saluting Fuller's racing stars with a huge picture of Mom's Command (his 1985 filly champion) and Dancer's Image, proclaiming: "Winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby."

Epilogue

Trainer Cavalaris and his assistant Robert Barnard were suspended for 30 days following the Derby disqualification. Forward Pass won the Preakness by six lengths. Dancer's Image did run in the Preakness and finished third, but amazingly was disqualified again for bumping in the stretch and placed eighth.

Racing for a questionable Triple Crown, Forward Pass led until the eighth pole in the Belmont Stakes, eventually giving way to Stage Door Johnny, who won by more than a length. Forward Pass wound up as a stallion in Japan, where he died in 1980. He could not match Dancer's Image's success in the breeding shed.

Dancer's Image was retired after the Preakness with 12 "official" victories in 24 starts with career earnings of $236,636. In the aftermath of the controversy a multimillion-dollar syndication fell apart. Dancer's Image entered stud in Maryland in 1969 and later stood in Ireland, France and Japan. One of the leading stallions in Japan, Dancer's Image died of colic in December 1992, at age 27.

Over 44 years Fuller has never wavered in his attempt to right what he believes was a terrible wrong. He never raced another horse in the Kentucky Derby, but his homebred Mom's Command, ridden by Fuller's daughter Abigail, won the filly Triple Crown and an Eclipse Award in 1985. Today, Fuller is still an active owner and breeder, a business he operates from his farmhouse in North Hampton.

Fuller's real legacy was changes in Kentucky Derby rules and regulations. Two major breakthroughs, stabling all Derby horses in one barn with beefed-up security and new testing procedures, have been implemented. Urine and blood samples are divided prior to testing. Now, one portion is tested while a second is kept for confirmation of the results if the initial tests are positive.

When Calumet Farm filed for bankruptcy its racing trophies were destined to be included in the estate's assets. A grassroots campaign in Kentucky that raised $2.7 million saved the trophies from being dispersed to help pay the farm's debt. Calumet's eight Derby trophies -- including the contested prize won by Forward Pass -- have been on display since 1982 at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at tconway@terryconway.net.