When Is A Derby Winner Not A Derby Winner? Ask Jockey Bobby Ussery

In 1968, Dancer’s Image finished first in the Kentucky Derby. Three days later, the horse was the first and, so far, only winner disqualified after a post-race positive drug test. With recent Derby winning Medina Spirit testing positive in a post-race test, usracing.com contributor Maryjean Wall spoke to Dancer’s Image jockey Bobby Ussery about that ’68 Derby.

By Maryjean Wall

Fifty-three years ago, jockey Bobby Ussery thought he’d won the Kentucky Derby, again, for the second consecutive year. His euphoria lasted all of three days.

It ended on the Tuesday following the 1968 Derby, when racing officials announced that Dancer’s Image, Ussery’s mount, had been disqualified as winner due to a post-race positive for then-illegal phenylbutazone.

Forward Pass was moved up to first from second. To this day, Ussery has been denied recognition as winner of the 1968 race. Ussery and Dancer’s Image et al posed for the winner’s circle photograph and received the various trophies but eventually the Derby winning owner’s trophy went to Calumet Farm and Forward Pass.

The Derby DQ was the first for a post-race positive, but there could be another as last weekend’s Derby winner Medina Spirit had a post-race positive for the anti-inflammatory betamethasone. If a second sample comes back positive, the horse will be disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun would be declared the winner, according to Churchill Downs.

Now 85, Ussery was at home in Hollywood, Florida, on Sunday when he learned Medina Spirit had a post-race positive. Talk about deja vu.

“Someone called me from Lexington and said there was something wrong with the test. Then I was watching TV and it came on the news,” he said in a phone interview with usracing.com.

The news took him back those 53 years to Dancer’s Image. Ussery said he was on the golf course in 1968 when someone came up to him and said, ‘Bobby, they’re going to disqualify your horse.’ I had thought everything was good.”

And here is his conundrum: if he got the horse home first, if the race was declared official and he posed on the horse in the Derby winner’s circle, why is he not acknowledged as the winning jockey for that race?

“If I’d been disqualified in the running of the race, OK. But I was in the winner’s circle and the race was official,” Ussery said. “I did win it. What the record should have showed was that I should still get credit for the win. Because they made the race official.

“Naturally, I was disappointed. But it’s been so long ago. What can you say? You just think about it and let it go. You can’t relive it.

“I’m not the horse,” he added. “I did my thing, and I won the race. They should have given me credit for it and said they’d disqualified the horse, not the jockey.”

Ussery is the only one of the owner-trainer-jockey connection with Dancer’s Image who is still alive. Lou Cavalaris, Jr., the horse’s trainer, died in 2013. He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and was a respected racing secretary with the Ontario Jockey Club. Fuller, the horse’s owner, died in 2012. Fuller’s name, more than Calumet Farm’s, is associated with the 1968 Derby, undoubtedly for the disqualification and the years spent trying to reclaim the winning race.

Some fascinating footnotes attached themselves to the Dancer’s Image story. Fuller initially wanted to name the son of Native Dancer “A.T.’s Image,” after his father, Alvan T. Fuller, who had been Republican governor of Massachusetts from 1924-28.

Peter Chew noted when writing The Kentucky Derby, the First 100 Years, that Gov. Fuller was skewered by liberals and radicals when he refused to commute the death sentence of the famous anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. If you’ve studied American history, you’ve made a nodding acquaintance with the two anarchists.

Dancer’s Image was born with ankles that did not portend of a sound racing career. Consequently, Fuller put the gray colt in the Fasig-Tipton horses-in-training sale held at Hialeah in 1967. The bidding stalled at $25,000, so Fuller bought the colt back and put him in training.

The most fascinating footnote had to do with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and how it connected with Dancer’s Image. As Chew tells in his book, the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, two days before Dancer’s Image ran in the Governor’s Cup at Bowie. Rioting broke out in many cities, with the King funeral set for the Monday following the Governor’s Cup.

Fuller was a trustee of Boston University, where King and his wife, Coretta, had studied. Fuller had met the couple. Consequently, he announced he would donate the $62,500 winner’s purse to the widowed Mrs. King if Dancer’s Image won the Governor’s Cup. And the horse did win.

Dancer’s Image thus became a symbol in the Civil Rights movement. As Chew wrote, Fuller received some “nasty letters” from Kentucky over this. Feelings were incited among both Blacks and Whites with Blacks threatening to disrupt the Derby. After Dancer’s Image failed his post-race test, some wondered if Fuller’s support of the Civil Rights movement might have had something to do with phenylbutazone being found in his system.

Lost in these conspiracy theories was the fact that Dancer’s Image had bad ankles and stood in ice water every day at Churchill Downs in the hope that swelling would be reduced. A veterinarian, Dr. Alex Harthill, was accused by some of perhaps giving the illegal medication to the horse but this was never proved. Despite the ankle problems Dancer’s Image ran like a horse on fire to win his Derby, Ussery encouraging him with every stride.

Though Ussery doesn’t talk much any more about the Derby win he feels he was denied, “It’s something that should be brought up,” he said. Maybe it will be, some day.’’

That day has arrived.