Who won the 1968 Kentucky Derby? If you look at most listings of Derby winners, Forward Pass is shown as the winner — but you’ll see an asterisk (*) or the words “via DQ” next to his name. What’s that about?
It’s a story mostly unknown to racing fans born in the 1970s and later. At one time, there was a different horse listed as the winner of the ’68 Derby on shot glasses and the sign on the back of the grandstand at Churchill Downs. The horse that time has almost forgotten is Dancer’s Image, a son of Native Dancer who was nicknamed the “Grey Ghost” by his many fans.
The breeder of Dancer’s Image, Peter Fuller, bred the mare Noors Image to Native Dancer with the intent of creating a Kentucky Derby contender, but there were questions about the resulting colt’s ankles. Dancer’s Image had inherited his sire’s color, speed, and unfortunately, his unsound ankles.
Bute was banned for use during races in Kentucky at that time, but it could be administered as long as it was no longer present in the horse’s urine at the time of a race. Because there was no definite way to know when bute was completely out of a horse’s system without testing its blood or urine, trainers and vets had to guess when it was safe to use it without causing a positive drug test after a race.
Native Dancer was well-known for his power and speed, but it came at a price — chronically inflamed ankles. He was retired at the age of four and was in high demand as a sire of speedy Thoroughbreds. Unfortunately he passed his ankles on to his offspring, who then shared the trait with their descendants. In today’s racehorse pedigrees, the most common sources of those ankles are Raise a Native, a Native Dancer son, and Northern Dancer, who was out of a Native Dancer daughter.
As writer William Nack explains in his ESPN article, “Eight Belles’ breakdown: a predictable tragedy,” American Thoroughbred breeders in the first half of the 20th century bred horses specifically for racing, not for selling. They could afford to do this because they were old-money families who enjoyed watching the sport. They took great pride in producing horses with long and storied race careers.
After many of those breeders died off and less-monied individuals got into Thoroughbred breeding, the goal became breeding horses to sell at a profit.
This began changing the breed. The focus moved to buying and selling blazing fast young horses that looked pretty in the sales ring. The problem is that those horses tended to be “hothouse flowers” that were kept in stalls most of their young lives, and stamina became an afterthought.
Owners wanted horses to start racing young and making money right away, not gradually over a six-year career. Native Dancer’s descendants fit the bill perfectly.
Breeders were anxious to cash in on the reputation of Native Dancer lines, so they began inbreeding to him two, three, and more times — something that continues today.
In 1960, racehorses would run an average of 11 races a year — but in 2006, that average was down to just six races a year. Most racehorses today retire at the tender age of three or four, leaving 15 or 20 years of their lives ahead of them.
After early retirement, if those horses don’t prove themselves in the breeding barn or immediately find a new career as a pleasure or competition horse, they can end up neglected or, as often happens, sent to slaughter.
What is the solution? Some Thoroughbred pedigree experts say the breed needs more diversity, but that may be impossible with the popularity of inbreeding. Ellen Parker, who has spent most of her life analyzing pedigrees, suggests that introducing other breeds into the stud book, such as Arabian or Anglo-Arabian, could significantly improve fragile legs — but the Jockey Club is unlikely ever to allow this.
Meanwhile, breeders who are concerned with the future of the breed should seek to breed their mares of popular lines to stallions with little or no Native Dancer breeding and insist on breeding only those individuals that were sound during their race careers.
In Dancer’s Image’s case, bute was given to him on the Sunday before the Kentucky Derby because his trainer and Dr. Harthill were certain the horse would be “clean” by the following Saturday. However, this also meant that Dancer’s Image would not be able to run in a Derby prep race on the Tuesday before the Derby.
The bute reduced the pain and swelling right away, but it also gave the horse diarrhea. Two days later, Dancer’s Image was recovered and his ankles looked like they were in good shape. But by Thursday the right front ankle was swollen again, so Dr. Harthill injected the joint with Azium, the horse was worked on the track, and then left to stand in buckets of ice water. He began to show rapid improvement and continued to look good through Saturday.
Forward Pass was the favorite that day, but Dancer’s Image was a serious contender. Dancer’s Image took his usual route to the finish line — by hanging out in the back of the pack until the final turn, when his jockey took advantage of a hole by the rail and methodically moved to the front to win the race a length-and-a-half ahead of Forward Pass.
Drug testing was not an exact science at that time, so the lab employees performed several more tests on the “suspicious” sample to see if it gave a positive result again, and to identify what the substance was. Using the tests available, the technicians felt that the substance causing the color change was probably bute, so they submitted a report to the racetrack stewards.
Documentation on all procedures was sparse, so the stewards had to rely completely on the lab technicians’ determination. Dancer’s Image’s team requested an immediate hearing, which didn’t go in their favor.
Fuller, the owner of Dancer’s Image, filed an appeal with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. A hearing was held in November and December 1968, which quickly became a battle between chemistry experts as the attorneys for Dancer’s Image attempted to poke holes in the drug testing company’s procedures and expertise. Nothing was clear to the spectators in the room. Still, the stewards upheld their previous decision.
Four years later, the winner of the 1968 Derby purse was still up in the air. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission appealed and the Kentucky Court of Appeals heard the case, overturning the circuit court judge’s decision. The court’s opinion was essentially that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had a lot more experience and knowledge in these matters and its decisions should be upheld.
But there was still more controversy. Both owners of the first two finishers, Dancer’s Image and Forward Pass, were now requesting possession of the 1968 Kentucky Derby Trophy, which Churchill Downs had handed over to a jeweler for safekeeping. Churchill Downs declined to choose sides, so the organization passed the requests on to the racing commission for its review.
No one knows for certain if Dancer’s Image really did test positive for bute on Kentucky Derby Day in 1968, nor does anyone seem to know how he would have received any bute just before the race. The horse had received a dose of bute on Sunday, which everyone involved was aware of, and it caused him gastrointestinal distress the next day. If he’d received bute just before the Derby, shouldn’t he have experienced diarrhea on or close to Derby day?
Dancer’s Image was the winningest horse in the field that day, so he’d been tested for prohibited substances more than any of his competitors prior to the Derby — always with negative results. His trainer had managed to keep him racing sound without ever using bute until the Sunday before the Derby. Why would his trainer give the horse bute a second time, risking a positive drug test, just before the biggest race of his career?
There were other questionable activities going on at Churchill Downs around the 1968 Kentucky Derby, as well as some political issues involving Dancer’s Image’s owner that angered the Kentucky racing community. To learn more, read Milton C. Toby’s thoroughly-researched Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.
There’s a documentary on YouTube about the people and events surrounding the controversial Dancer’s Image drug ruling. In the video below, watch Dancer’s Image come from last place to win the Kentucky Derby in 1968.