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40 years later - the tarnished legacy of Dancer's Image
I never knew the story behind this horse. This farm is located in the town next to mine, and I've seen that billboard hundreds of time, yet never thought anything about it.
Thorns and roses
Dancer's Image owner recalls the pain of the most controversial Derby ever
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / May 2, 2008
NORTH HAMPTON, N.H. - His memory has ebbed a bit on the shoals of time. At 85, Peter Fuller, a renowned New England sportsman and business titan, struggles at times to recall the address of his farmhouse and the names of a friend or two.
more stories like thisBut ask him about Dancer's Image, whose historic triumph at the 1968 Kentucky Derby was stripped from him in the convulsive aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and Fuller remembers it all: the soft leather belt in his hand as he walked his charcoal-gray colt into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, the scent of the roses draped around his champion thoroughbred, the thunder of the crowd, the warmth of the victor's Gold Cup in his arms.
And the pain of believing he lost it all partly for who he was: a brash outsider, a wealthy civil rights sympathizer from Boston who offended the Kentucky racing aristocracy by donating Dancer's $62,000 prize for a previous victory to Coretta Scott King two days after her husband's murder.
King enraged Kentucky's racing establishment the year before by organizing mass demonstrations against housing discrimination in Louisville that disrupted Derby week and prompted authorities to deploy 1,000 police and National Guardsmen to maintain order during the Run for the Roses.
"I mean, baby doll, the Civil War was still pretty good down there," Fuller said in his New Hampshire farmhouse as the 40th anniversary of the most controversial Kentucky Derby in history draws near. "I've heard from people there who say we absolutely got screwed and from other people who say, 'Please, Peter, shut up and go away.' "
Dancer's Image, the only Derby winner to be disqualified since the race began in 1875, officially was dropped from first place to last because he tested positive for traces of a common anti-inflammatory, phenylbutazone, or bute. The medication was briefly banned by racing commissions in a number of states, including Kentucky, but later became legal in every state and now is widely used throughout horse racing.
Fuller never accepted the official ruling. Though he acknowledges he lacks proof, he insists Dancer's Image was all but robbed of $122,600 in prize money, the $5,000 Gold Cup, and his rightful place among Derby champions because Fuller lacked a Kentucky pedigree and alienated the state's power brokers with his gift to King's widow.
The Derby prize ultimately went to the second-place finisher, Forward Pass, of Kentucky's prestigious Calumet Farm, whose horses had won seven previous Derbys. The farm's matriarch, Lucille Markey, vowed to forever boycott the Derby if Fuller's colt was declared the winner.
"The pain is real," Fuller said, his eyes welling, as he recalled Dancer's dash to glory and the ensuing gloom.
Fuller's daughter, Abby, who will be honored in June by the Sports Museum in Boston for her career as a jockey, had just turned 9 when Dancer won the Derby. She recalled the thrill of tunneling through the crowd to reach the winner's circle - and the despair her father later endured.
"We may never know the full story of what happened," Abby said. "Some of the reasons are more than some people would like to admit, as far as the racism."
Fuller said he never regretted his donation to Mrs. King. Unlike many children of privilege - he grew up in a Back Bay mansion with 11 servants, the son of a Massachusetts governor, Alvan Fuller, who became fabulously rich after he founded the former landmark Cadillac-Oldsmobile distributorship on Commonwealth Avenue - Fuller had ventured across the racial divide before the civil rights movement.
After he graduated from Milton Academy and Harvard, where he captained the wrestling team, Fuller entered the Marines and became a competitive boxer. With Joe Louis as his hero, he returned home to win the New England AAU boxing and wrestling championships, as well as the New England Golden Gloves heavyweight title. Along the way, he defeated Bob Girard, one of the only amateurs to beat the great Rocky Marciano. In all, Fuller fought more than 50 amateur bouts, losing only five, each to an African-American.
Boxing helped Fuller forge friendships with a number of African-Americans, including a fighter named Anthony Jones, whose family's quiet dignity in the face of poverty - Fuller visited them while they ate baked beans out of tin cans for the lack of dinnerware - still chokes him up. Fuller said Jones refused his offer of financial help.
As heir to his father's fortune, Fuller founded the Positive Program for Boston, a Roxbury-based service organization, for which he was honored by the NAACP during the civil rights movement. He became acquainted with King as a trustee of Boston University, and he was deeply moved by the civil rights leader's murder. (Fuller, who attended Harvard with Robert F. Kennedy, recently wrote Kennedy's oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, to praise the elder Kennedy's historic speech in which he broke the news of King's assassination to a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis.)
"Dr. King was a great American who died trying to make this country free for all people," Fuller said in bestowing Dancer's prize from the Governor's Gold Cup race in Bowie, Md., on Mrs. King in 1968. "I hope it helps a little bit."
In Kentucky, the gift hardly endeared Fuller to the racing gentry.
"Suddenly it became, let's jump on this guy in no uncertain terms," Fuller said. "It became something it shouldn't have become."
Fuller did himself little good by boasting before the Derby that Dancer was a cinch to win. Then he clashed with Wathen Knebelkamp, the president of Churchill Downs, threatening to pull out of the race unless the track increased his ticket allotment from four to more than 50 to accommodate his entourage. Finally, Fuller was cocky enough to rehearse a jaunt from the box seats to the winner's circle the day before the race.
Never mind that Fuller had never run a horse in the Derby. Or that Forward Pass was slightly favored over Dancer. Fuller's horse had won at Bowie and was coming off a victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
"I felt quite sure we were going to win," he said. "It got to the point where people there were thinking, 'Who does this [expletive] think he is?' It was fun."
The good times rolled into the winner's circle. With Dancer trailing all 13 rivals early in the race, Fuller's older brother, Alvan, fixed him with an icy stare as if to say Fuller was crazy to ever believe his horse had a chance. Then came Dancer's charge. With jockey Bobby Ussery navigating, Fuller's colt broke inside and overtook one horse after another until he surged past Forward Pass to win by a length and a half.
"Bobby cut the corner and, wow, Dancer won with his ears pricked up," Fuller recalled as if it were yesterday. "Wow, what a thrill."
Then, what a calamity. Two days later came news of Dancer's tainted urine. Fuller immediately contested the finding, yet he failed to fully grasp the stigma of the disqualification until he was changing planes in New York on his way home to meet Massachusetts Governor John Volpe and spotted a banner headline: "Derby Winner Doped."
"They'll do anything to win, won't they?" Fuller said he heard a man reading the newspaper say.
"Who is he talking about?" Fuller's wife, Joan, asked him.
"They're talking about me," Fuller said.
Fuller later learned that his son, Peter Fuller Jr., was taunted by a classmate who snarled, "Your father fixed the Derby."
So it was that Fuller spent $250,000 over the next four years fighting Dancer's disqualification. He won an early round in 1970 when a state circuit judge overruled the Kentucky Racing Commission and declared Dancer the winner. But Fuller lost the final round two years later when the state's highest court found "an abundance of substantial evidence" for the disqualification, despite acknowledging numerous contradictions in the voluminous trial record, which topped 4,000 pages.
In the end, Fuller appeared unable to overcome a veterinarian's testimony that he gave Dancer a single tablet of bute six days and seven hours before the Derby, unbeknownst to Fuller. The racing commission suspended Fuller's trainer, Lou Cavalaris, for 30 days because he was deemed ultimately responsible for the horse. (It was Cavalaris's first suspension in 21 years as a trainer.)
Forty years later, however, the story continues to unfold. Paul Daley, a horse racing writer for the Lowell Sun, said he is seeking a publisher for his book, "Tarnished Image," that will prove Dancer and Fuller were the victims of the racing commission's incompetent testing, among other irregularities.
"We can conclude that the final test results that were turned into the Kentucky stewards could not have come from horse urine," Daley said. He declined to elaborate other than to say, "Dancer's Image should be the winner of the '68 Derby."
Everyone who bet on Dancer that day at Churchill Downs was paid (he returned $9.20 on a $2 wager). But Fuller, who did not bet on the race, figures the disqualification cost him not only the Gold Cup and purse money but more than $1 million in syndication fees for Dancer. The colt, which spent more than a year before the Derby at Fuller's Runnymede Farm in New Hampshire, died on Christmas Eve in 1992 at the age of 28.
Fuller still adores the horse. He wakes every morning to pictures of Dancer on his bedroom mantle. A large print of Fuller leading Dancer into the winner's circle adorns the wall of a front room of the 19th-century farmhouse. And a giant, weather-beaten billboard depicting Ussery aboard Dancer rises out of the field at Runnymede, in North Hampton, as it has for nearly 40 years.
"Dancer's Image," the billboard reads. "Winner - 1968 Kentucky Derby."
The legacy of Fuller's gift to King's widow also endures. Abby Fuller said an African-American worker at Tampa Bay Downs recently surprised her by recalling her father's philanthropy in 1968.
"I just want you to know that a lot of people remember what your dad did for the civil rights movement and we appreciate it," she said the man told her.
Fuller, meanwhile, remains a horseman. He continues to study the Daily Racing Form, the Thoroughbred Times, and The Blood-Horse, looking for winners. He said he wants to remain active in racing as long as his friend Fred Hooper, whose horse, Hoop Jr., won the 1945 Derby. Hooper died in 2000 at 102.
In 40 years, Fuller has never returned to the Derby, vowing to go back only if he discovers a horse that could win it. He decided long ago what he would name that horse: "Dancer's Revenge."