by Kristin Berkery
A Trick Question
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.
Native Dancer was a powerful stallion who won the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and came in second in the Kentucky Derby. On top of that, Native Dancer was quite a sire as well: His son Kauai King won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1966 and Native Dancer sons and daughters produced such outstanding runners as Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Ruffian, and Alydar.
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.
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.
The big problem with the commission’s last decision was that the Kentucky Rules of Racing specifically said in 1969 that Dancer’s Image’s drug violation would not affect the order of the race results, only the purse distribution. Obviously the commission was breaking its own rules. Fuller wanted to appeal the decision in the Franklin County Circuit Court, but because of legal technicalities, his attorneys missed their chance to file the correct paperwork and the case was thrown out with no more appeals available.
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 is a documentary on YouTube about the people and events surrounding the controversial Dancer’s Image drug ruling.