Medina Spirit saga evokes memories of 1968 Kentucky Derby disqualification for Maryland-bred Dancer’s Image

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BALTIMORE — Peter Fuller went to his grave believing his horse did not get a fair shake.

On May 4, 1968, a gray colt named Dancer’s Image roared from the back of a 14-horse pack to win the Kentucky Derby. Or so it seemed. Two days later, Kentucky racing officials stripped Fuller’s horse of his title and $122,600 purse because they found traces of the painkiller phenylbutazone in his post-race urine sample.

Dancer’s Image was the first, and so far only, horse to have a Derby victory erased by a drug test. His story has gained currency this week because Medina Spirit might soon join him on the list. Like his predecessor from 53 years ago, Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first after a tough-minded performance guided by a Hall of Fame jockey. Now, his win is in question because he tested positive for an anti-inflammatory medication. Like Dancer’s Image before him, he’ll run in the Preakness under a cloud of suspicion and contention.

“As Bob Baffert said, it’s a huge blow in the gut,” said Fuller’s daughter, Abby, who joined her father in the winner’s circle in 1968 and went on to become a champion jockey and trainer. “I can’t even imagine. I’ve been DQ’d in a race as a rider; it’s terrible. I can’t even imagine it in the Derby.”

She doesn’t see a perfect parallel between her father and Baffert, whose horses have been flagged for a series of medication violations over the past three years, but this week’s events have evoked powerful memories of the elation and disappointment her family experienced.

Sports Illustrated plastered the Maryland-bred Dancer’s Image on its cover under the phrase “Derby Drug Mystery.”

The Evening Sun said the “major controversy” had “stepped up interest tremendously” in the 1968 Preakness. Columnist Bill Tanton set his sights on Fuller, writing that the owner of Dancer’s Image “has been saying a number of puzzling things lately, prompted no doubt by the almost unbearable frustration of becoming the first owner ever to have a Kentucky Derby taken away from him.”

Fuller initially said Dancer’s Image would not run in the Preakness if trainer Lou Cavalaris Jr., who had been suspended for 30 days, was not allowed to prepare him for the race. He reversed his stance at Cavalaris’ urging.

No one knew if Pimlico stewards would accept Dancer’s Image as a Preakness entry until two days before the race. Once he was allowed in, his rematch with Forward Pass, who had been awarded victory in the Derby, became the story of the race. Could the son of 1953 Preakness champion Native Dancer, known as much for his weak ankles as his closing speed, show that he really was the best 3-year-old in the country?

“It has the appearance of a great match race between Dancer’s Image and Forward Pass, with the other eight [horses] just along for the ride,” Tanton wrote in The Evening Sun.

The Sun touted a potential Triple Crown controversy if Dancer’s Image defeated Forward Pass. “Race Today May Clear Fans’ Doubt,” its headline read.

This year’s Derby runner-up, Mandaloun, is not at Pimlico Race Course for a rematch. Otherwise, we’ve watched similar intrigue unfold this week around Medina Spirit and his trainer, Baffert. First, Baffert said his colt had never been treated with the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone. He amended his story Tuesday, saying Medina Spirit had been treated with an antifungal ointment that contained betamethasone and might have led to the failed test after the Derby. Meanwhile, Baffert’s attorney, W. Craig Robinson III, struck a deal with Preakness organizers to get Medina Spirit in the race as long as he passes a series of drug tests. Baffert, who has won the Preakness seven times and would be the star of the week under normal circumstances, is not coming to Baltimore because, he says, he does not want to be a distraction.

Fuller, a Boston automobile dealer and son of a former Massachusetts governor, became the human focus of the 1968 saga. As a Northeasterner who had donated a portion of Dancer’s Image’s purse winnings to the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he felt the conservative Kentucky racing establishment was against him. Forward Pass, the newly crowned Derby champion, hailed from the state’s mighty Calumet Farm.

“Dancer’s Image was a Maryland-bred, and dad was kind of a renegade guy within racing,” Abby Fuller said. “And certainly, that donation [to King’s widow] rattled people. Was that actually the cause of [the disqualification]? I don’t know.”

The story did not get any better for Dancer’s Image in the Preakness. Forward Pass “romped to a six-length victory” as The Sun put it, and Fuller’s horse was disqualified (after he crossed the finish line third) because of alleged rough riding by jockey Bobby Ussery.

Forward Pass and Dancer’s Image answered one question on that May afternoon in Baltimore, but Fuller’s quest to restore his horse’s Derby victory was just beginning. He spent five years and more than $200,000 fighting the case all the way up to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Though Kentucky’s rules in 1968 were clear on the drug in question, they did not stipulate clearly that disqualification was the required punishment. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that several chemists called to testify said the evidence against Dancer’s Image was inconclusive. One circuit court judge awarded the winner’s purse back to Fuller and Dancer’s Image. Then, Forward Pass’ owner, Lucille Parker Wright Markey, said she would stop racing Calumet horses in Kentucky if the disqualification against Dancer’s Image was not upheld.

“Those words were pretty heavy stuff,” Fuller told the Courier-Journal in 1988. “It’s not very gallant to speak ill of Calumet Farm or Mrs. Markey. My attorney was astonished that the case was even appealed given [the circuit court judge’s] reputation. But I think the statement by Mrs. Markey put pressure on people. As time has gone by, I am sure that I was a political victim.”

As with Medina Spirit’s current situation, the disqualification of Dancer’s Image spoke to a deeper debate within thoroughbred racing about appropriate medication use. Phenylbutazone, better known as bute, was not permitted to appear in a horse’s system on race day, according to Kentucky rules, but it would become a commonly used drug in the years to follow. Many horsemen depended on its anti-inflammatory benefits while prominent jockeys decried it as a scourge that masked injuries and led to dangerous breakdowns.

Contention rages to this day over what constitutes an acceptable level of therapeutic medication in a racehorse’s system. Baffert, for one, has said testing is so sensitive now that trainers have been put in an impossible position.

Even after he gave up his legal fight, Fuller maintained he had no idea how the painkiller ended up in his horse’s system. “I’ll go to my grave wondering what happened,” he told the Courier-Journal. He would go on to breed and own Hall of Fame filly Mom’s Command (ridden by Abby), but it was the 1968 Derby disqualification that appeared in the first line of his obituary in 2012.

Abby Fuller said the result stuck in her father’s craw until the end. He was a boisterous, thick-skinned sportsman who loved the black-and-white verdict provided by a race. He just never believed Forward Pass was the better horse on May 4, 1968.

“He was not a whiny guy; it was more the principle of what he saw and what he thought,” she said. “It is still a mystery. Was the test tainted? Did somebody do something to the horse? Those are answers no one has, at least no one who is alive now. My dad never had them.”