THE NOTORIOUS 1968 KENTUCKY DERBY

On April 24, 2017, Horse Racing Business wrote about the 1968 Kentucky Derby (click here to access the article), in which Dancer’s Image was disqualified days after the race for having traces of the then-banned anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone (“bute”) in his bloodstream.  Approaching the 50th anniversary of the race, here is a different look at the events leading up to and following the race.

On April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  Peter Fuller, the owner of Dancer’s Image, pledged the colt’s winnings from the upcoming Wood Memorial Stakes to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.  When Dancer’s Image won the race, Fuller followed through by sending Mrs. King the purse of $60,000.  (Fuller had served on the board of trustees of Boston University and admired Reverend King, who held a doctorate from the school.)  Fuller reported receiving plaudits and hate messages for his act of kindness and gratitude.

Then, in May 1968, came Dancer’s Image’s disqualification in the Derby and the lingering controversy.  After four years of litigation and hiring of chemists as expert witnesses, Fuller had spent about $250,000 to no avail.  The only disqualification of the putative winner in Kentucky Derby history stood.

Fuller went on the record as stating that his colt was disqualified–and his appeal denied–owing to bias by stewards and members of the Kentucky State Racing Commission, who had pressure put on them from powerful interests within Kentucky.  Fuller implied that racism was involved over his monetary contribution to Mrs. King.  He overtly alleged that Forward Pass, the second-placed colt in the 1968 Kentucky Derby, who was declared the winner, was elevated because he was owned by the doyenne of bluegrass society, Lucille Parker Wright Markey of Calumet Farm.

Fifty years past 1968, there are at least two ways to view the stewards’ decision.  On the one hand, bute was a forbidden race-day medication in Kentucky at the time, so the stewards and the Racing Commission were scrupulously following the rules.  On the other hand, the blood sample from Dancer’s Image had only traces of the medication and, arguably, bute did not affect the outcome of the race.  Yet if stewards had ignored the test results and kept Dancer’s Image as the Derby winner, they would have been accused of flouting the written rules and possibly of participating in a cover-up of the evidence.  As for Fuller’s allegations of racial bias and a provincial preference for Forward Pass’s owner, there is no way to ascertain the truth…and people are left to draw their own conclusions.

Peter Fuller died in 2012, living 44 years after the incident that rocked the racing world.  His unique legacy is that of the man who briefly did and then permanently did not own a Kentucky Derby winner.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business

Sidebar:  The attorney who represented Fuller in his appeal, Edward S. Bonnie, died on March 17, 2018, less than two months away from the 50th anniversary of the Derby incident that gave him so much name recognition in the world of American horse racing.

Speak Your Mind

*