Dancer’s Image Won the 1968 Kentucky Derby. Then a Doping Mystery Began.

·11 min read

Dancer’s Image dropped to the very back of the 14-horse pack in the first seconds of the 1968 Kentucky Derby. When the starting gates opened, Gleaming Sword bumped into Forward Pass who hit Dancer’s Image who landed in the rear of the herd, and that’s where he stayed for much of the one-and-a-quarter-mile race.

But the fumble that would have hurt the prospects of many other horses was just fine for Dancer’s Image. The rear was exactly where his team wanted him to be.

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Because of how far behind he trailed for much of the race, Dancer’s Image isn’t even in the frame for most of the broadcast footage from the day. It wasn’t until the final half-mile that the jockey Bobby Ussery saw an opening and made a break for it. Galloping in a furious dash to the finish in the final stretch of a race was where Dancer’s Image shined, and he proved it at the 1968 Derby. He won the race by one-and-a-half lengths.

A blanket of 500 roses was draped on the equine star as pictures were taken in the Winner’s Circle; champagne bottles were popped to toast the horse’s owner Peter Fuller, a Boston businessman, at the after-party for the 94th Kentucky Derby; and newspapers readied the next day’s headlines that proclaimed victory for Dancer’s Image.

But the celebration was short lived. As the two-legged attendees reveled in the day’s events, the real winner was still at work. Across the track, Dancer’s Image and one other horse picked at random were undergoing a routine drug test. Churchill Downs had a zero tolerance policy for any trace of substances in a horse’s system on race day.

Milton Toby, author of Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, was a freshman in college when he attended his first Derby in 1968. It was an exciting event, even though he was in the zoo of people watching from the infield. But almost as memorable as the race was when he picked up the Louisville Courier-Journal several days later and saw the headline: “Derby Winner Disqualified.”

Dancer’s Image had tested positive for “Bute,” the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, which was commonly used to treat horses, but wasn’t allowed to be present in any amount on Derby Day.

The horse’s team was shocked. By all accounts, his owner and trainer were upstanding men and they vehemently denied that any Bute had been given to him during the window that it would have been detectable. But if they didn’t dope their horse in an attempt to win, what happened? Was the test faulty? Or had someone intentionally sabotaged Dancer’s Image?

It’s a question that went through five years of litigation and that still has no answer today, one that involved a shady horse doctor, a Louisville embroiled in the civil rights movement, and a racing community divided on the question of what medication should be allowed.

Dancer’s Image was born on April 10, 1965, the son of Native Dancer, a horse who lost only one of the 22 races he ran during his career. It was an impressive pedigree, but with the good came the bad. Dancer’s Image not only inherited his father’s racing chops, he also got his bad ankles.

Peter Fuller originally named his new colt A.T.’s Image after his own father, Alvan Tufts Fuller, a businessman and innovator in the burgeoning field of automotive sales, who also served as a two-term governor of Massachusetts. When A.T.’s Image was just over a year-and-a-half old, Fuller took him to see the trainer Lou Cavalaris, who took one look at the horse’s poor ankles and recommended Fuller sell.

Fuller had his horse’s name changed to Dancer’s Image and put him up for auction. But the Bostonian had two big problems. His wife didn’t want to sell the horse, and he was also pretty attached to the four-legged tribute to his father. To compound matters, the sale price of $25,000 would only cover his stud fees, not the money that had been spent on the colt’s upkeep.

So when auction time rolled around, Fuller decided to buy back Dancer’s Image and convince Cavalaris to train him.

Things went well for the horse and trainer as the 1968 Derby approached. Dancer’s Image still suffered from weak ankles, but they were managed.

Weeks before the big race at Churchill Downs on May 4, 1968, Dancer’s Image was entered into the Governor’s Gold Cup in Maryland. The race was taking place in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, and the country was in turmoil.

Fuller was a proud supporter of the civil rights movement, and when his horse won the race, he decided to donate the $62,000 purse to Coretta Scott King.

News of the donation flew under the radar in the racing community until an announcer at the Wood Memorial Stakes a short time later needed something to fill the dead air and revealed Fuller’s support of King’s widow. A flurry of letters to Fuller ensued, including some vicious hate mail.

The Kentucky Derby had its own fraught relationship with the civil rights movement. The previous year, King had traveled to Louisville in support of protests that had broken out against housing segregation in the city.

As the protests continued on, the unrest in the city threatened to cancel that year’s race. There was talk of bringing in the National Guard, and the Ku Klux Klan offered their services to the Churchill authorities in order to enable the race to continue. The Derby went on as planned without accepting either offer, but the tensions remained.

“There was a lot of animus toward the civil rights movement already from the 1967 Derby,” Toby says. “And now, Peter Fuller comes in, he’s donated money to Coretta Scott King, he’s a Northerner, he’s a Democrat, he was very active in the civil rights movement in the northeast, so he wasn’t going to be well liked in Kentucky.”

Fuller requested that Churchill Downs beef up the security for his horse during the Derby or at least let him bring his own people. But he was told his concerns were unfounded and his request was declined.

In the week leading up to the big day, Dancer’s Image was suffering from a bit of an ankle flair up. To make sure he was in prime condition for the race, his team decided to enlist the help of a veterinarian known as the “Derby Doc.”

Dr. Alex Harthill was so well-known in the community that he was allowed to keep his own barn on the Churchill Downs grounds, a very unusual situation given that every other vet worked out of their car. Over his long career, he also became known for his shady practices.

On Sunday, days before the Saturday race, Harthill decided the best plan of action would be to give Dancer’s Image a dose of Bute. The dose he proposed, according to Life magazine, was generally processed out of a horse’s system in 36 hours, but always within 90, so it should have been long gone by Derby day. The team agreed to the treatment.

At every step along the way, Cavalaris and Fuller had an understanding: if Dancer’s Image did not look in peak condition to run, they would withdraw him from the field. He was a good horse, and there was no reason to push it if he wasn’t in top shape.

But come race day, everything seemed to be in order. Dancer’s Image ran the race that his team knew he had in him, and he won. It was an incredible accomplishment and a proud moment for everyone involved.

And when it all came crumbling down, they were shocked.

“The words staggered me. I was spellbound. I just stood there,” Cavalaris told Sports Illustrated in 1968. “I’ve been in this game 21 years and I’ve never done anything wrong yet. I’m innocent, and so are my men. They love Dancer’s Image, just as I do.”

Fuller immediately knew he was going to fight the findings that had stripped his horse of its title and named the runner-up, Forward Pass, a horse owned by Calumet Farm which was considered Kentucky royalty, the new winner.

There were two explanations for what could have happened. Either the tests and the chemist in charge of conducting them were in error, or there had been a case of foul play and someone had dosed the horse with Bute in the days leading up to the race without the knowledge of his team.

But to fight these charges, Fuller really only had one option: “The problem was that Peter Fuller thought that the horse won honestly. Or if he didn’t, then somebody got to him,” Toby says. “But that wouldn't change the fact that he had a positive drug test. So, really, the only thing they could do was say that the test was wrong and the chemist was incompetent.”

There was plenty of support for this argument. In addition to issues with the chemist and with the actual procedure of the six-series test, there was also the issue that Churchill rules didn’t require a back-up sample just in case.

So there was no way to re-test the sample to ensure the positive result was accurate. The test also only revealed a positive or negative—it didn’t say how much Bute was in the horse’s system, which could have determined if an additional dose had been given closer to race day.

Over the next five years, Fuller spent more than he would have received from the Derby purse fighting the disqualification. He won an early victory in a state circuit court, which overruled the decision to strip Dancer’s Image of his title. But the case went on to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which decided the matter once and for all against Fuller and his horse.

While that decision formally stripped Dancer’s Image of his title, winnings, and trophy, the case still lingers with a big question mark: how did Bute show up in the test?

Theories have been bandied about over the years, running from the innocuous—the make-up of each horse is different, and maybe Dancer’s Image processed the Sunday Bute injection much more slowly than usual—to the more nefarious—someone in the Churchill Downs community sabotaged the horse as revenge for Fuller’s support of MLK.

It could have been the dastardly Harthill who was up to no good for his own aims, or maybe Harthill or someone else wanted to throw the race in favor of Calumet Farm.

In the wake of the legal case, the Kentucky Derby quietly made changes. They increased security at Churchill Downs, changed the testing procedures, and slowly loosened their rules on which drugs were approved for use.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Dancer’s Image</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty</div>

Dancer’s Image

Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

The team behind Dancer’s Image, for their part, remained staunch until the end that their horse—the best horse—is the rightful winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.

In January 1969, Life magazine published its list of winners and losers from the previous year. Dancer’s Image was crowned the Winner of the Year with a caption that told readers to “forget the litigation going on at Churchill Downs—that’s a squabble for the Racing Commission.”

In 1998, the jockey Ussery gave a reporter at the Los Angeles Times his business card, which read “Kentucky Derby Winner of ’67 & ’68”; Fuller kept a sign on his farm that read, ”Dancer’s Image, winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.”

“The only thing that we can absolutely know for sure is that he beat every other horse that ran in the derby that day,” Toby says. “And when you’re talking about Derby winners that's all you can say about any of them. He won it very impressively. And, for me, that’s how Dancer's Image should be remembered.”

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