Horses are big business in Kentucky, and even schoolboys were aware of the controversy in Louisville 50 years ago. It began with the horse race on the first Saturday in May, so far as we knew.
With Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn and presidential candidate Richard Nixon watching from the stands, Dancer’s Image came from dead last, 14 lengths back, to pass 13 horses and cross the wire a length and a half ahead of Forward Pass. Nunn chuckled as Nixon dramatically tore his losing ticket in half.
But Nixon may have been a little hasty, depending on which horse he picked. Three days after the race, Churchill Downs stewards ordered Boston car dealer Peter Fuller to return the trophy and winning purse, and named Forward Pass the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner. Post race testing revealed that Dancer’s Image had phenylbutazone in his blood sample.
It’s an anti-inflammatory painkiller, used routinely nowadays when horses suffer swelling in their joints. But in 1968 it was illegal at Kentucky racetracks. Fuller’s veterinarian prescribed it during training, but allowed six days for it to clear from the horse’s bloodstream before the race. Fuller, his veterinarian and the horse’s trainer were at a loss to explain why Dancer’s Image still had phenylbutazone in his system on race day.
I was an odd 8th-grader who read Racing Form past performance charts fluently and had committed a lot of racing trivia to memory. But we were also a politically conscious family. My dad ran for the House of Representatives on “Clean Gene” McCarthy’s antiwar slate in Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District. Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for the presidential nomination across the river in Indiana.
Martin Luther King was shot down exactly one month before the 1968 Derby, but he was in Louisville one year earlier to help local Blacks, led by his brother, A.D. King, protest housing discrimination.
Locals had disrupted a race at Churchill Downs the previous year, and wanted to disrupt the 1967 Derby, but King persuaded them to hold the protests downtown instead, due to the potential for mayhem at the track.
In April 1968, Fuller entered Dancer’s Image in a tune-up for the Derby, the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City.
When his horse won, Fuller donated the purse to the recently widowed Coretta Scott King. I’ve seen two different numbers – $62,000 and $77,415. Either way, it was a lot of money in 1968 dollars. He didn’t publicize it, but it was common knowledge at the track, and a race announcer mentioned it on television.
The gift made friends and enemies for Fuller. There was hate mail. There were anonymous death threats. There was a mysterious fire at one of his stables. So he asked Churchill Downs management to put on extra security. They refused.
Fuller was a pretty demanding guy. He was an ex-Marine and the son of a Republican ex-governor. His father was one of the wealthiest men in America, and Fuller was no slouch, himself.
After growing up in a household with 11 domestic servants, Fuller was accustomed to having his way. It was customary to provide Derby horse owners with four tickets. He demanded 50.
The brash, hard-charging Yankee may have alienated courtly Southerners he should have tried to charm. Instead, he made condescending remarks about “rednecks.”
The bottom line is that he didn’t get the extra security from Churchill Downs, and he didn’t hire his own. Security at his race barn, he recalled, was “an old fella in a chair and asleep.”
Fuller said later he believed he was “set up,” that some unknown intruder entered his horse’s stall to inject the disqualifying phenylbutazone. Either that or the blood sample was adulterated.
Fuller appealed the track stewards’ decision to the Kentucky Racing Commission, and lost. He took his case to court and won in 1970. Dancer’s Image was once again the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner.
But then the State of Kentucky took that decision up to a federal appeals court, and won its case against Fuller and Dancer’s Image. That was final. Fuller said he spent $250,000 on his futile lawsuits.
A billboard at his horse farm in New Hampshire boasts stubbornly that it is the home of Dancer’s Image, 1968 Kentucky Derby winner. But that sign is false.
Forward Pass is the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner. The colt was no fluke, either – he went on to win the Preakness, and barely missed a Triple Crown sweep June 1 after leading the Belmont til final sixteenth pole.
Three days later, as 13-year-olds were starting summer vacation, there was another tragedy in the real world, the second in two months. that made horse racing seem awfully frivolous.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” wrote poet Emma Lazarus, addressing the Old World. “Send these, the tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
And so Palestinian immigrant Bishara Sirhan brought his family to America. The poet also bade the Old World “keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.” But when Bishara brought his 12-year-old son Sirhan Sirhan from Jerusalem to California, he imported a monstrous ego and many centuries of ancient hatreds to his American sanctuary.
The younger Sirhan appeared Westernized in his teens, with a pompadour hair style, and even in old age today he looks like a kind gentleman. But he testified in court that he assassinated Bobby Kennedy “with 20 years of malice aforethought.” His diary confirmed that he was seething with resentment against Jews, and against the New York Senator who favored selling fighter jets to Israel.
He cased the Los Angeles hotel where Kennedy would watch primary election results with supporters. Kennedy won the California and South Dakota presidential primaries June 4. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson had long since bowed out of the race. There was great hopefulness among Americans who had supported the late president John F. Kennedy eight years earlier.
As Bobby Kennedy left the celebration through a hotel kitchen, the angry immigrant intercepted the triumphant candidate and put three bullets in him, one in the head and two in the back. Like phenylbutazone, Sirhan nullified the victory. And in my mind’s eye, I see Richard Nixon piecing the shreds of his Derby ticket back together.
Of course, it’s anybody’s guess how the world might have been different if Bobby Kennedy were elected president that November instead of Richard Nixon. Like his older brother, he had a penchant for adultery. But he was Catholic, under the influence of a prominent Cardinal. Unlike his younger brother Teddy, he didn’t try to harmonize public policy with his personal immorality.
If older brother John’s lone nomination to the Supreme Court is any indication. a Court populated by three Bobby Kennedy nominations might have decided Roe v. Wade differently. Byron White, JFK’s appointment to the Court, not only dissented from Roe, but from all subsequent decisions that applied it as binding precedent.
Nixon, by contrast to JFK, nominated pro-abortion Justices Lewis Powell and Harry Blackmun, and pro-abortion Chief Justice Warren Burger to the Court.
If Bobby Kennedy had filled those Supreme Court vacancies with the same kind of Justices as Byron White, they might have combined with William Rehnquist and White to form a 5-4 majority for the protection of unborn children. Tens of millions of American children might have been spared the abortion holocaust that ensued after Roe v. Wade, and continues today. Thanks to Sirhan Sirhan and the people who welcomed him to our country, we’ll never know for sure.
“1968 was a horrific year,” Fuller said.