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THE 1968 KENTUCKY DERBY : THE VICTORY THAT WASN'T : Dancer's Image, Who Finished First, Was Disqualified After Positive Test for Illegal Medication

May 01, 1988|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In Florida, Bobby Ussery, the Hall of Fame jockey who now weighs 160 pounds, hands you his business card. It reads:

ROBERT USSERY Kentucky Derby Winner Of '67 & '68

A picture on the card is about the size of two postage stamps, but it clearly shows Ussery aboard Dancer's Image in the winner's circle after the 1968 Derby, with Peter Fuller, the horse's owner, holding the reins and motioning to people in front of him to join the celebration.

But, uh, Bobby, about this card . . .

"I know they took the Derby away from Dancer's Image," says a puffy, bright-eyed Ussery, now a 53-year-old jockey's agent and bloodstock salesman. "But we were first across the finish line, they paid off the people that bet on him, and that's good enough for me."

Ussery was also first across the Churchill Downs finish line in 1967 with Proud Clarion--a result that counted--and for more than 48 hours in 1968 he had the distinction of being the first jockey in 66 years to win the Kentucky Derby in consecutive years.

But on the night of May 4, 1968, in a mobile laboratory on the Churchill Downs grounds, an assistant racing chemist for the Commonwealth of Kentucky ran a $9.50 test by acidifying with sulfuric acid a urine sample taken from Dancer's Image after the race. He called Kenny Smith, Kentucky's head racing chemist, who was attending a post-Derby party at Louisville's Audubon Country Club.

"We got a Bute positive from today," Smith was told.

Knowing only that the positive test for Butazolidin--a painkiller known generically as phenylbutazone--came from 1 of almost 100 horses that raced on Derby day, Smith went to his permanent lab on Sunday and re-tested the sample three or four times. The results were the same.

Still not knowing that the sample belonged to Dancer's Image, Smith phoned Lewis Finley, one of the Churchill Downs stewards, and told him what they had.

That Tuesday, while Bobby Ussery played golf in New York, and Ismael (Milo) Valenzuela, the jockey who rode Forward Pass to a second-place finish, was on a golf course in Louisville, Wathen Knebelkamp, the president of Churchill Downs, announced that because of the test, Dancer's Image had been dropped to last place and the Derby victory was given to Forward Pass.

The Kentucky Derby usually takes about two minutes to run. The slowest Derby, on the track, was 2:15 1/5, in 1908, but the 1968 Derby lasted almost five years. On April 14, 1973, $150,000 in legal fees and 4,022 pages of testimony later, Peter Fuller gave up. The $122,600 first prize, plus the interest it had accrued in an escrow account in a Louisville bank, were given to Calumet Farm and Forward Pass. The 1968 Kentucky Derby was finally over.

On March 6, 1974, Butazolidin was legalized by the Kentucky Racing Commission. Said to have the effect on horses of aspirin on humans, the anti-inflammatory medication is legal in most racing states and most horses that run in the Kentucky Derby are treated with it.

"It was legal before Dancer's Image, too," Ussery said. "Venetian Way had it when he won the Derby in '60. I was second on Bally Ache that year."

The shock of having won and then lost the Kentucky Derby didn't hit Peter and Joan Fuller until they were en route home to Boston the Tuesday after the race. They were to be guests of honor at a party that included John Volpe, the governor of Massachusetts.

The Fullers' plane made a stopover in New York, and they noticed someone boarding with a New York Post carrying the headline:

DERBY WINNER DOPED

"It was the biggest headline I ever saw," Peter Fuller said. "It took up the whole front page. You would have thought we had gotten into another war."

The man carrying the newspaper settled into a seat near the Fullers and said to the person next to him: "They'll do anything to win the Derby, won't they?"

Overhearing, Joan Fuller turned to her husband and said: "Who's he talking about?"

"Thee and me," Peter Fuller said.

In Boston, the party went on as scheduled. "We had been on Cloud 9 one day, and now we were involved in the darndest thing," Peter Fuller said. "Instead of a party, it was like a rally, with the hue and cry about what we were going to do to right this wrong."

One of Fuller's attorneys was Ned Bonnie, who still practices in Louisville.

"Those were tough days for everybody," Bonnie said the other day. "The case provided a great study in human nature and personal integrity. The whole truth was never known."

Fuller won the first round in court when, in December of 1970, a Kentucky county judge said that the racing commission's disqualification was based on evidence "wholly lacking in substance." But the final round, three years later, went to Forward Pass.

Once the owner of the largest Cadillac dealership in Boston, and before that a collegiate boxer, Fuller knew all about the round system.

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