Chapter List

  • Chapter 1 — The Commoner and the King
  • Chapter 2 — Thoroughbreds and Blondes
  • Chapter 3 — No Good Deed goes Unpunished
  • Chapter 4 — The Derby Doc
  • Chapter 5 — The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports
  • Chapter 6 — Welcome to Oz
  • Chapter 7 — An unbelievable Witness
  • Chapter 8 — The Holy Grail
  • Chapter 9 — The Usual Suspects
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix A: Stewards’ Preliminary Statement (May 7, 1968)
  • Appendix B: Stewards’ Ruling (May 15, 1968)
  • Appendix C: Kentucky State Racing Commission (January 6, 1969)
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • About the Author

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At the head of the stretch, riding one of the favorites in the most important horse race in the world, jockey Bobby Ussery dropped his whip.

It was an accident, one of those unfortunate things that just happen sometimes, but it could not have come at a worse point in the race for Ussery. The veteran jockey had hustled Dancer’s Image up from dead last in the field of 14, weaving through horses on the final turn like the legendary “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. When a hole opened up on the rail, Ussery cut to the inside toward clear running room. That was when the stick fell from his grasp. One second Ussery had the whip clutched in his right hand, waving it at the horse’s flank; the next second it was gone. Dancer’s Image was in gear, moving fast on the leaders, but the strapping, gray colt still had the pace-setter and the favorite to catch.

And suddenly his jockey had no whip.

It happened so quickly that hardly anyone in the stands noticed. Even when watching a replay of the race, Ussery’s gaffe is not obvious unless you know just when to pay attention.

“I didn’t even know I lost it,” Ussery told reporters after the race. “They tell me I dropped it at the three-sixteenths pole.”

In other circumstances it might have sounded like an idle boast from a rider trying to cover up what could have been a fatal mistake in a major race. But it was not that at all. Ussery was simply stating a fact. He did not need the stick because Dancer’s Image was good enough to win on his own.

The official Daily Racing Form chart for the 1968 Kentucky Derby refers to Ussery’s “vigorous hand ride” in the stretch after the rider lost his whip, but those words pale in comparison to what actually happened through the final quarter-mile. Crouched low over the horse’s neck, his sights set on the leaders, Ussery was riding hard, pushing Dancer’s Image with his legs and his hands and his voice. He kept the colt tight on the rail and Dancer’s Image surged to the front in the final furlong. He drew clear and won by 1 ½ lengths. The chart caller for the Form said that Dancer’s Image was “hard pressed” to beat the favorite, Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass, but that assessment belies a dramatic stretch run dominated by the winner. There was little doubt that the big, gray colt was the best horse that day.

Ussery’s masterful ride in the 94th Kentucky Derby marked an important milestone for the Oklahoma native, who became the first winner of back-to-back Kentucky Derbys in more than 60 years. Eddie Arcaro won the race five times but he could not win two in a row, and neither could four-time winner Bill Hartack. Ussery’s victory the previous year on longshot Proud Clarion had been an unlikely one; a year later Ussery was confident the long stretch run at Churchill Downs favored Dancer’s Image and the colt’s heart-stopping, come-from-behind running style. Before the race Ussery predicted that Dancer’s Image would “be there at the wire.”

He could not have been more right.

The win was a dream come true for Boston automobile dealer Peter Fuller, who bred and owned Dancer’s Image, and for veteran Canadian trainer Lou Cavalaris Jr., who nursed the colt’s sore ankles through a demanding 3-year-old campaign and got him to the Derby sound enough to win. Dancer’s Image was the first Kentucky Derby starter for both men and the broad smiles on their faces as they led the colt into the Churchill Downs winner’s circle showed how much they were savoring the moment. Curiously, though, in some of the photographs Cavalaris is staring down, apparently assessing the Derby winner’s fragile front ankles.

The $5,000 gold trophy awarded to the winning owner each year was the Holy Grail of Thoroughbred racing, and it belonged to Fuller—for a while, at least. As events unfolded, keeping the coveted Derby trophy would prove far more difficult than winning it.

Later that evening a hundred people showed up for the traditional winner’s celebration hosted by Churchill Downs President Wathen Knebelkamp. Fuller was the life of the party, and for good reason. Only one 3-year-old is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby each year, and in 1968 that horse was Dancer’s Image.

“I’m truly happy about this,” Fuller told reporters gathered around the table he shared with his family. “I love winning, but others have to lose. And that’s very tough. Isn’t it, kids?”

While the party was in full swing in the track’s private dining room there was activity of another kind going on in the barn area. A lab technician toiling in a cramped trailer was mixing chemicals with urine samples collected from the winners of each race on Derby Day. One of the numbered samples—the technician at the time did not know from which horse—unexpectedly changed color when the reagent was added. It was a preliminary screening test, not specific for any particular prohibited medication, but the color change indicated that something was wrong.

On Tuesday, three days after Knebelkamp lifted a glass to toast Peter Fuller as the owner of the Derby winner, the track president announced that Dancer’s Image had tested positive for phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug prohibited under the rules of racing in Kentucky. The winner’s share of the purse, Knebelkamp said, now would go to the second-place horse, Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass.

The Kentucky Derby is rightfully called the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” but hearings and lawsuits would drag on for five years before anyone could say for sure which horse “officially” won the 1968 running of the race. Decades after Forward Pass finally was awarded the winner’s purse and the gold trophy, there still are more questions than answers about what really happened on that first Saturday in May.

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