Drug Scandal Robbed Dancer's Image of 1968 Kentucky Derby Title

Peter Fuller was jaunting to the winner's circle 40 years ago, a Harvard man who now had a Kentucky Derby winner in Dancer's Image.

Fuller, however, barely got his hands on the gold winner's cup before it was taken away in a drug scandal. It was the only disqualification in the Derby's 133-year history.

"You understand that things will never quite be the same," Fuller recently told The Associated Press by phone from New Hampshire. "Every once in a while and particularly around this time, you'll have people who want to say hello and they've been told who that guy is."

Now 85, the second-generation Boston auto dealer and son of a former Massachusetts governor has more questions than answers about the days leading to that first Saturday in May in 1968.

"It's still very, very bright in my memory," Fuller said. "It really is quite a story."

It would be another generation before performance-enhancing drugs became an everyday part of the sports landscape. Back then, trainers relied mostly on oats, hay and water to fuel their horses.

Sent off as the 7-2 second choice, Dancer's Image rallied from last to win by 1½ lengths over Forward Pass even though jockey Bobby Ussery lost his whip.

Traces of phenylbutazone, known as bute, were found in Dancer's Image's post-race urinalysis. Then it was legal at some tracks, but Churchill Downs wasn't yet one of them.

Dancer's Image was disqualified by the stewards and placed 14th and last; Forward Pass was declared the winner. The scandal raised all sorts of theories.

Dancer's Image had inherited tender ankles from his famous sire Native Dancer. They were especially sore after the colt's victory in his final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial.

Alex Harthill, nicknamed the "Derby Doc" for treating past winners, gave Dancer's Image a dose of bute six days before, seemingly enough time for it to clear the colt's bloodstream. Trainer Lou Cavalaris agreed with the tactic.

"Any bute that he got was at least a week before the Derby," Fuller recalled. "I don't know anything about drugs and I leave that to people that understand that, the vets and the trainers. I count on them."

Harthill later said he gave Dancer's Image a single dose of bute. He was a controversial figure in his own right, having twice been implicated in drugging scandals. He died nearly three years ago.

Today, the anti-inflammatory is one of the most commonly used drugs in horse racing, given to alleviate chronic pain and joint inflammation and not to enhance performance. Kentucky medication rules allow any of the 20 horses running in Saturday's Derby to be given bute more than 24 hours before the race provided their post-race sample doesn't exceed a specific amount.

"Everybody uses it," said Fuller, who still races a few horses in his name. "It doesn't make you run faster. It's an aspirin; it helps a little bit on the pain."

Cavalaris and assistant Robert Barnard each received 30-day suspensions. Harthill was not penalized and Fuller never collected the winner's purse of $122,600. Today, the winning owner receives $1,451,800.

Fuller said he spent $250,000 and four years unsuccessfully fighting the DQ in court. The Derby media guide includes the official chart showing Dancer's Image as the winner, but in other sections Forward Pass gets the credit.

That still bugs Ussery.

He rode 1967 Derby winner Proud Clarion and getting credit for 1968 would make Ussery one of five jockeys to win successive Derbys. Instead, Ismael Valenzuela is listed as the winning rider.

"They made the race official and they don't want to give me credit for the win," Ussery said by phone. "If I would have been DQ'd in the race, then you got DQ'd. Once they made the race official, it had no bearing on me."

Fuller might not have been the most welcome guest when he arrived in Louisville two days before the May 4 Derby, a month after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis and a month before Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

"1968 was a horrific year," Fuller said.

He had donated the earnings from one of Dancer's Image's pre-Derby victories to Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader whom he had briefly met that year. He did so without fanfare, but the gift became public knowledge at the Wood Memorial after a TV announcer mentioned it.

It drew praise from civil rights supporters and criticism from opponents.

"Most of them good, but some of them you couldn't repeat," Fuller said. "Later on, (philanthropist) Paul Mellon said, 'Peter, you shouldn't have mixed politics and racing.' I wasn't trying to mix anything. That sort of set the stage, and we were on our way to Louisville."

Anticipating "some funny business," Fuller said he asked Churchill Downs officials for extra security during Derby week, but was turned down. He described the guard on duty at his horse's barn as "an old fella sitting in a chair and asleep."

Today, Derby horses are placed under constant surveillance 72 hours before the race.

Fuller's daughter, Abby Fuller-Catalano, was in the Derby winner's circle with her father. At 9, she was old enough to know about the hate mail her father received for supporting the civil rights movement.

"I've had people say, 'I know what your dad did and that took a lot of courage,'" she said from Florida. "I think it offended a lot of people. That's basically why the horse got disqualified. The horse was a Maryland-bred. My dad was a Northerner. I think definitely that all factored in."

Ussery, now 73 and recovering from triple bypass surgery in Florida, later asked Harthill what happened and the vet said he didn't know.

"It sounds like to me that somebody gave him too many shots because bute was supposed to go out of his system within 24 hours," Ussery said.

Dancer's Image next ran third behind Forward Pass in the Preakness, but was disqualified for bumping another horse and placed eighth. He was retired after that. Fuller eventually sold him and the colt had a successful stud career overseas. He died in 1992.

Ussery never rode in the Derby again, retiring in 1974. He's still got his gold trophy. "I'm going to keep that, too," he said.

Fuller never returned, either, but he'll be watching Saturday. Cavalaris went home to Canada after his suspension and later became a steward.

"Hopefully someone will come out with the whole story," Fuller-Catalano said, "but I don't know if there's anyone that knows the whole story."

A billboard with Dancer's Image picture still stands at Fuller's farm in New Hampton, N.H., proclaiming the colt as the Derby winner, even though the record book says otherwise.

"We don't put an asterisk by it," Fuller's daughter said. "To us he won the race."