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The Longest Derby

By Billy Reed

Nearly half a century after Dancer’s Image became the only horse ever disqualified from victory in the Kentucky Derby, mystery still surrounds the events and people of the story. The case involved a positive test for a prohibited analgesic drug that was found in a post-race test after Dancer’s Image had rallied from last to first to win the 94th Run for the Roses. But there was far more to the tale than a positive test.

All sorts of unexplained circumstances, bizarre occurrences and colorful racing people surrounded the story, and Dancer’s Image’s owner Peter Fuller doggedly fought the disqualification with the Kentucky racing commission and the state’s courts in a drama that played out over four years. The case was finally decided by the Kentucky Supreme Court, and the court’s ruling became precedent case law for racing in every state.

But a court ruling did not put an end to the mystery. What writer Billy Reed, of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the late Jim Bolus, of the Louisville Times, who teamed to report the case from finish line to finish, always wanted to know is what really happened in the 1968 Kentucky Derby.

The following is an edited version of a new story by Reed of a turf saga that has come to be called “The Longest Derby.”

 

The Longest Derby

By Billy Reed

On the morning of Sunday, April 28, 1968, trainer Louis C. Cavalaris Jr. arrived at stall No. 6, Barn 24, at Churchill Downs to have a look at the gray colt that would be running six days later in the 94th Kentucky Derby. The colt’s name was Dancer’s Image, a son of the immortal Native Dancer, and he had earned his trip to Louisville by winning the Wood Memorial in New York despite over-sized front ankles that needed constant attention and treatment.

When the ankles had swollen the previous day, the colt’s Louisville veterinarian, Dr. Alex Harthill, known throughout the industry as the “Derby Doc,” had soaked them in ice. But the swelling was still there on Sunday morning after Dancer’s Image had taken a leisurely gallop. Cavalaris and Harthill agreed to treat the colt with a non-narcotic, anti-inflammatory medication designed to reduce swelling and pain — Butazolidin, or generically, phenylbutazone.

In those days, the Kentucky rules of racing prohibited the presence of “bute” in a horse’s system during a race. But since the Derby was almost a week away, and since normally all traces disappeared within a few hours, Cavalaris and Harthill believed it was safe to give the colt “bute.” So at around 10 or 10:30 a.m., with Cavalaris holding Dancer’s Image steady, Harthill entered stall No. 6 and orally administered a large white pill containing four grams of Butazolidin.

That was the first and last time anybody admitted giving the medication to Dancer’s Image before the Kentucky Derby. It also was the beginning of the biggest mystery in Derby history, one that remains unsolved to this day.

After the colt won the Wood, owner Peter Fuller knew he finally had a legitimate Derby contender after 15 years in the business. A millionaire Cadillac dealer from Boston, and the son of a former Massachusetts Governor, Fuller asked one of his friends, trainer Odie Clelland, about making plans for Kentucky. Clelland suggested that Fuller retain Harthill and get a stall in Barn 24, which was known around the track as “Doc Harthill’s barn.”

The son and grandson of veterinarians, Harthill had started at the top, treating Derby horses as early as 1948, just after his graduation from Ohio State University. Although he was widely respected for his brilliance as a vet, he also had a long rap sheet of run-ins with racing authorities about suspicious races and unseemly shenanigans. At Churchill, he had an office and a laboratory inside Barn 24, a courtesy afforded no other veterinarian.

Cavalaris’ instructions to Harthill were to use the same medication schedule used by Dr. Mark Gerard in New York leading up to the Wood Memorial — vitamins the Wednesday and Friday before the Derby, steroids (which performed like Butazolidin but were legal) Thursday and Friday. After administering the “bute” the Sunday morning before the Derby, Harthill continued packing the ankles in ice. He provided further therapy with a whirlpool machine.

On the Monday morning before the Derby, Dancer’s Image seemed a little sick, so Cavalaris ordered the rye straw in his stall replaced by wheat. After a gallop that morning, the swelling in the ankles had reduced considerably and Harthill’s X-rays turned up negative. Pleased, Cavalaris left that afternoon to tend to some horses in Detroit. The trainer returned to Louisville to check on the colt on Tuesday morning. Finding everything in good order, Cavalaris left again, this time for Canada. As he was leaving, Fuller was arriving with his wife, mother-in-law, five of his seven children and 45 friends on a chartered Eastern Airlines jet.

Although he didn’t follow his father into public service, Fuller, a former amateur boxing star, always was ready to fight injustice whenever he saw it. On Saturday, April 6, after Dancer’s Image had won the $100,000 Governor’s Gold Cup at Bowie in Maryland, Fuller announced that he would donate the winner’s purse, more than $60,000, to the widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated three days earlier in Memphis.

On the morning of Thursday, May 2, Harthill was “very concerned” about the colt’s right front ankle, which he thought was so swollen the colt shouldn’t gallop that day. But assistant trainer Robert Barnard, who testified later that Dancer’s Image “had a history of working out the stiffness in his ankle when he galloped,” insisted that, per Cavalaris’ instructions, the colt be given a massive dose of the steroid Azium and sent out for his gallop. Barnard prevailed, and after the gallop, the colt’s ankles were soaked in ice and treated with the whirlpool. That afternoon, as Harthill noted in his log, “The ankle started to respond dramatically.… I thought the Azium had brought about the response.”

By the time Cavalaris returned Friday morning, Dancer’s Image was well on his way to what was later termed a “miraculous recovery.” The colt galloped briskly, his final Derby tuneup, and Cavalaris said his right front ankle seemed fine. Later, however, Harthill would testify that he “never saw a horse butchered like Dancer’s Image.”

As the crowd of 92,617 streamed into Churchill Downs on Derby Day, the overwhelming sentimental favorite wasn’t Dancer’s Image, but Forward Pass, the Blue Grass Stakes winner who was trying to win the Derby for Kentucky’s iconic Calumet Farm for the first time in 10 years. Harthill had treated the Calumet horses going back to Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner. By post time, the crowd had made Forward Pass the 2-1 favorite, even though jockey Don Brumfield, who had ridden the colt in the Blue Grass, had gotten so ill that he had to be replaced by Milo Valenzuela.

When the gate sprang open and released the 14-horse field, C.V. Whitney’s Gleaming Sword bumped Forward Pass, who in turn bumped Dancer’s Image. By the half-mile pole, Dancer’s Image and jockey Bobby Ussery were dead last, several lengths off the torrid pace set by Kentucky Sherry. After three quarters, however, Ussery asked the Dancer to run and began weaving his way through horses. At the top of the stretch, Ussery took the gray colt to the inside and found running room. Although Ussery dropped his whip, it didn’t make any difference. Under an animated hand ride by Ussery, Dancer’s Image overtook Forward Pass, which had taken the lead, just before the eighth pole and pulled off for a 1½-length victory.

Even before Ussery had guided the colt back to the winner’s circle, Fuller and his party were on the track. Trotting up to meet the Dancer, Fuller grabbed one side of his bridle, Cavalaris the other, and together they led the colt into the infield winner’s circle while Ussery, wearing Fuller’s bright green silks with crossed gold bars, flashed victory signs.

“Does he look OK?” asked Fuller.

“When they come across the line first, Mr. Fuller,” said Cavalaris, “they’re always OK.”

After the entire party was thoroughly photographed, interviewed, and bedecked with roses, Dancer’s Image was led to the backside detention center, the barn where horses were washed down and stabled until samples of their saliva and urine could be collected for testing. In those days, the only horses tested were the winner and another selected at random. The random horse turned out to be Kentucky Sherry, speedy early pace-setter.

In the detention area, Dancer’s Image was in the care of assistant trainer Barnard, groom Russell Parchen, exercise rider Eddie Warme, and an employee of Dr. Harthill’s known as Whitey. They bathed the colt and put cold-water bandages on his ankles while a Kentucky State Racing Commission veterinarian obtained a saliva specimen. The urine specimen was harder to come by. For a half-hour, Parchen and Barnard walked Dancer’s Image around the barn before putting him in a stall with assistant state veterinarian George Dickinson. Unsuccessful after a half-hour, Dickinson turned the task over to colleague Sidney Turner. When Turner’s efforts also proved futile, the Derby winner was moved two stalls down, where a mare had just urinated.

At a little past 7 p.m., roughly an hour and a half after Dancer’s Image had entered the detention barn, a urine specimen finally was obtained, tagged with a number (3956U) and sent to the nearby blue-and-white trailer owned by the Louisville Testing Laboratory, Inc., a company that the Racing Commission had used for more than 20 years to test samples at all the state’s tracks.

The urine specimen was delivered to Jimmy Chinn, who was running the tests that day for the lab’s owner, Kenneth W. Smith. Meanwhile, Barnard and Parchen picked up their equipment and took Dancer’s Image back to Barn 24. When Cavalaris arrived soon afterward, they all toasted the victory with champagne provided by Dr. Harthill.

As usual, a lot of post-Derby parties and celebrations were going on that evening in Louisville. Churchill president Wathen Knebelkamp and about 100 guests, including Peter and Joan Fuller, rehashed the Derby in the track’s private dining room. Smith, the president of the testing company, was dining at the Audubon Country Club. At about 8 p.m., Smith took a phone call from his laboratory supervisor, Maurice Cusick, who had in turn just received a call from Chinn at Churchill Downs informing him that he thought he had a positive sample from the Derby Day card.

Excusing himself, Smith met Chinn and Cusick in the company’s main lab on Chestnut Street. Already, the chemists knew that specimen 3956U belonged to the winner of the seventh, eighth or ninth races. They did not know which race because of how the specimens were labeled. The chemists ran more tests, then returned to Churchill Downs at about 11:30 p.m. to do even more tests. At this point, Smith called Lewis Finley, the chief steward for the Kentucky State Racing Commission, to inform him there was a positive in one of the last three races on the Derby Day card. Finley told Smith to follow the usual routine and submit his report on Monday morning. After hanging up with Smith, according to phone records, Finley made a call to Dr. Harthill.

On the Sunday after the Derby, while Cavalaris took off with a friend to visit Elmendorf Farm near Lexington, Harthill examined Dancer’s Image and found his right front ankle “looking real good.” Meanwhile that morning, chemist Smith returned alone to his mobile lab to conduct more tests. He worked in the mobile lab until 6:30 p.m., when he returned to the downtown lab for more testing. By about 10 p.m., Smith had used up just about all of specimen 3956U. Nevertheless, he mailed some of it to a chemist friend in Nebraska, apparently to get a second opinion.

At 8 a.m. on the Monday after the Derby, Smith again called Finley to give him the number of the positive sample. Finley then called fellow steward Jack Goode at his home in Paris, Ky., and made arrangements to pick up Goode so they could ride to Louisville together for that afternoon’s races at Churchill Downs. There they would meet the third steward, Leo O’Donnell, who lived in Louisville.

Upon arriving at Churchill, the stewards found two envelopes on the desk in their office — a yellow one with the specimen tags from Saturday’s races and a white one with the chemist’s report from Friday’s card. Finley closed the door and the stewards opened the yellow envelope. When Finley matched the Dancer’s Image tag with the number Smith had given him over the phone, he saw they were the same. Said Goode later, “Finley almost went through the floor.”

After a 45-minute discussion, the stewards called George Egger, the new chairman of the Kentucky State Racing Commission, and Knebelkamp, who was having lunch at the track. They came to the stewards’ office, as did Smith, who told the group that specimen 3956U “needed further testing,” and that he had sent part of it to his friend in Nebraska. Later, Finley testified, “I immediately told him that he was the state chemist and the only results that we were interested in were his.”

Sent back to his trailer, Smith returned in 15 or 20 minutes with a report that said, “Urine 3956U … POSITIVE … This sample contained phenylbutazone or a derivative thereof.” Goode later remembered asking Smith if he was “absolutely positive” about his findings, and Smith replied, “Absolutely. … I would stake my life on it.” At this point the stewards had Cavalaris paged over the track’s public-address system. They also sent Alvin Schem, the track’s director of security, and George Korjenek, an agent of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB), to search the Dancer’s surroundings in Barn 24. The agents returned with Azium and medication, but nothing illegal.

At his barn near No. 24, trainer Doug Davis, a longtime Harthill friend, heard the public-address calls for Cavalaris. He also noticed the agents searching the barn and asked what was going on. Told that Dancer’s Image had tested positive for Butazolidin, Davis returned to his room at the Standiford Motel and tried to call Cavalaris at the Brown Suburban. But Cavalaris was in Central Kentucky, touring horse farms with Mr. and Mrs. Fuller.

At 6:30 p.m., when Cavalaris returned to his hotel room, he returned Davis’ phone call and heard the news that had yet to be released to the media. Shocked, Cavalaris agreed to come to Davis’ motel for a meeting. When Cavalaris told Fuller the news, they agreed that while Cavalaris went to see Davis, the Fullers would wait at the Brown Suburban for Ed McGrath, the Louisville agent for Lloyd’s of London who had the insurance policy on Dancer’s Image.

As soon as Cavalaris arrived at Davis’ room at the Standiford Motel, Davis sent for Harthill and Barnard. “Lou was very upset,” Davis would later testify. “And he said, ‘Doug, I did not do it. I did not give that horse anything.’ In one of those spells of pacing, Lou stopped and he turned to me and he asked me, ‘Doug, you’ve known Alex a long time. Do you think Alex could have made a mistake or got the wrong bottle or anything like that?’ I told Lou that I had known Alex for a great, great number of years, that he had treated literally thousands of horses for me, and that everything he had ever done for me had always been in a very professional, workmanlike manner.”

Harthill arrived a little after 7 p.m., just after Barnard. Cavalaris recalled that the veterinarian looked “distraught,” and Harthill later said he felt that Cavalaris acted rather hostile. When Harthill left, Cavalaris told Barnard to return to the barn and he would meet him there after returning to the Brown Suburban to talk to Fuller. After they left, Davis received a call from Harthill.

“What do you think?” asked Harthill.

“You might not be elected,” Davis said, “but you’re damn sure nominated.”

Harthill then told Davis to meet him at Barn 24, where Barnard still was waiting for Cavalaris. At this point Davis brought up a scheme that his own attorney later characterized as “phantasmagoria.” Davis proposed to Harthill that they “doctor” or “salt” the feed of Dancer’s Image with a white substance (aspirin) that resembled Butazolidin. This would be done in the presence of Cavalaris and Barnard, Davis said. His thinking was that if Cavalaris were guilty, he would go along with the scheme, after which Harthill and Davis would turn him in to authorities. If innocent, however, Cavalaris would report the “salting” to authorities immediately. Harthill and Davis would get themselves off the hook by showing they were using only aspirin.

“My motive was to protect my friend Alex,” Davis later testified. “I wanted to bring Cavalaris out in the open and this was the only avenue open to me.”

So while Cavalaris watched in what he later called “amazement,” Davis went into the stall backing up to the one that housed Dancer’s Image and heaved the salted feed through a transom. How Cavalaris reacted is a matter of debate. Although he testified that he wanted nothing to do with the scheme, Davis called him a “damned liar.”

Late on Tuesday morning, the news went out on the Associated Press wire, touching off a media frenzy. One of the early wire stories carried an interview with the stunned Fuller, who suggested that a desperate gambler or some other nefarious character must have “gotten” to his horse. When Churchill responded by defending its security, a couple of Courier-Journal reporters went to Churchill late that night and found that the only guard at Barn 24 was fast asleep.

A week or so later, when one of the same reporters made a return trip to Barn 24, Harthill confronted him and slugged him. As he stood over the reporter, Harthill yelled, “You’ve been trying to find out about that gambling coup in Mexico, haven’t you?”

With the sport still reeling, Dancer’s Image ran in the Preakness and finished third, only to be disqualified to eighth for trying to bull his way between horses in the stretch. Moving on to New York for the Belmont Stakes, he injured an ankle during training and was retired.

Soon enough began the legal battle that would last almost five years. First Fuller appealed the stewards’ decision to the Kentucky State Racing Commission. After weeks of testimony, the Racing Commission upheld the stewards and, on Dec. 23, 1968, awarded first-place money to Forward Pass. Undaunted, Fuller appealed again, this time to Franklin County Circuit Court. On Dec. 11, 1970, Judge Henry Meigs overturned the Racing Commission and declared Dancer’s Image the winner on the grounds that chemist Smith’s findings were insufficient to identify Butazolidin.

The Racing Commission appealed Meigs’ decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and, on April 27, 1972, that body overturned Meigs’ decision and gave the purse money back to Calumet Farm. That fall, Churchill Downs sent the winner’s purse ($138,587, including interest) to Calumet and the Racing Commission finally declared Forward Pass the official winner of the Derby’s gold cup, the eighth for Calumet.

To his dying day, Fuller believed that Harthill was behind the plot, an assertion that Harthill denied to his dying day. Fuller also never accepted Forward Pass as the winner of the 1968 Derby. The way Fuller saw it, his gray colt won fair and square on the track. Visitors to his New Hampshire Farm were greeted with a billboard that said, “Home of Dancer’s Image, winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.”