The New Hampshire thoroughbred Dancer’s Image won, then lost, the Kentucky Derby in 1968 because his owner made a kind gesture to the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Peter Fuller, the horse’s owner, believed that to the day he died. He was convinced resentful white southerners stripped him of his prize because he was a New Englander who supported the civil rights movement.
Bigger, Tougher, Stronger
Peter Fuller was the son of car dealer and former Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller and Viola Davenport Fuller. He was born on March 22, 1923 in Boston with an intestinal disease that stunted his growth and kept him out of school until he was 10.
Fuller spent the next 15 years compensating. He told the New York Times he spent every waking hour making himself bigger, tougher and stronger.
Fuller graduated from Harvard, where he wrestled and boxed, and served in the Marines during World War II. He managed the boxing career of Tom McNeeley and turned down an offer to manage Rocky Marciano. His father’s car business made him rich, and he bought his first thoroughbred in 1951. He kept his horses at Runnymede Farm in North Hampton, N.H., where he lived.
Fuller bought Noor’s Image in 1958 and bred her to Native Dancer, a celebrated stallion. He named the horse after his father but then changed his name to Dancer’s Image when he decided to sell him. His wife Joan begged him to keep the beautiful horse and he bought him back at auction.
The Kentucky Derby, the most exciting two minutes in sports, has a fast pace set by more than a dozen unpredictable three-year-old colts.
The day before the 1968 Kentucky Derby, Peter Fuller had such confidence in Dancer’s Image that he practiced the walk from his box to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs in Louisville. He even composed an acceptance speech. He demanded 50 tickets rather than the usual four allotted to owners.
Dancer’s Image wove through 13 rivals from last place to win the Kentucky Derby by a length and a half. Three days later, Churchill Downs ruled Fuller had to return the $122,600 winner’s purse. Track officials discovered the painkiller phenylbutazone, also known as bute, in the horse’s system.
Dancer’s Image had sore ankles and a veterinarian had given him the drug, commonly used to relieve inflammation of the joints. It was legal at many U.S. racetracks, but not at Churchill Downs. Why the drug appeared on Dancer’s Image’s test results remains a mystery.
Bute disappears from a horse’s system six days after it’s administered. It had been given to Dancer’s Image more than six days before the Kentucky Derby. After the race, Churchill Downs followed its usual practice of testing the winner and one horse chosen at random. That’s when the test results showed bute in Dancer’s Image’s system. The second place finisher, Forward Pass, was declared the winner, though he was not tested.
Peter Fuller believed he was set up. Either someone sneaked into the stall and gave Dancer’s Image the drug or someone altered the test results.
Fuller thought he was targeted because of his support for Martin Luther King, Jr. Two days after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis that year, Fuller gave a purse of $62,000 won by Dancer’s Image to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.
Churchill Downs had special reason for animus toward King and his supporters.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The year before, civil rights protesters held a sit-in on the stretch run in the middle of a race at the racetrack. They had protested for months, demanding an end to housing discrimination. Tensions grew as the 1967 Kentucky Derby approached, and the protesters’ leader, A.D. King, asked his brother Martin for help. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Louisville and led a downtown rally in downtown on the day of the Derby. He feared a demonstration at the racetrack would lead to bloodshed.
King was murdered on April 4, 1968. Fuller didn’t announce his gift to Coretta Scott King, but it made the news in Louisville in the run-up to the Derby. Fuller feared reprisal. He received death threats, one of his stables was set on fire and Dancer’s Image was given a racial slur as a nickname. Fuller asked Churchill Downs for extra security. He didn’t get it.
He described the guard at his barn as “an old fella sitting in a chair and asleep.”
Sports Story of the Year
The controversy filled the news. Sports Illustrated called it the sports story of the year.
Peter Fuller fought for years to have Dancer’s Image declared the rightful winner of the Kentucky Derby. He appealed the racetrack’s ruling to the Kentucky State Racing Commission, which sided with Churchill Downs. He took his case to court and, in 1970, won. But then he lost on appeal.
He later said he didn’t regret the publicity about the gift. In 1998 he told the Boston Herald, “It was just my way of saying, ‘Hell, this was a hell of a guy,’ and I’d say that to any redneck in the world.”
Dancer’s Image came in third behind Forward Pass in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. He was disqualified again for bumping another horse. Fuller decided to retire him after that race because of his sore ankles. He was sent to stud and died in Japan at age 27 on December 26, 1992.
Kentucky lifted its ban on bute in 1974. It was so commonly used that by 1986 13 of the 16 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby were running on it.
Peter Fuller said he wouldn’t take another horse to the Kentucky Derby unless he thought it could win. He never found that horse, but if he had he had a name for it: ‘Dancer’s Revenge.’
He died at age 89 on May 14, 2012 in Portsmouth, N.H. To this day, a weathered billboard at Runnymede Farm proclaims Dancer’s Image the winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.
This story was updated in 2022.