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In 1968, This Kentucky Derby Winner Lost its Crown for a Drug Most Horses Take Now

May 7, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

The .

“At the time, Kentucky had what’s called a zero-tolerance policy for prohibited medications,” Toby says. “Which meant that even the smallest trace of this drug and the other prohibited medications in a horse’s system was grounds for disqualification. It didn’t matter how much it was, there just had to be at least a trace.”

One of the drugs on the prohibited medications list was phenylbutazone, often referred to as “Bute,” which acts as an antihistamine and pain-reliever in horses, similarly to how aspirin works in humans. It isn’t a steroid or stimulant that affects a horse’s performance as drastically as heroin or cocaine, and many horses used it during training for the 1968 Kentucky Derby. Still, they weren’t supposed to have any of it in their systems by the time they raced in Louisville, and the chemist found that Dancer’s Image did.

Peter Fuller with racehorse Dancer’s Image in 1968.

It later came out that a veterinarian had given Dancer’s Image some phenylbutazone about a week before the race. Most horses would have gotten the drug out of their system by then, but it seems Dancer’s Image’s body didn’t process it as quickly. Because of the zero-tolerance policy, racetrack chemists only tested for the presence of certain drugs, not the amount that was in a horse’s body. So it didn’t matter whether Dancer’s Image had a lot of phenylbutazone in his system or just trace amounts from a previous dose—he was going to be disqualified.

Officials at Churchill Downs didn’t discover the drug test results until Monday when they received the chemist’s report. They spent the day tracking down the horse’s trainer, Lou Cavalaris, to tell him that Dancer’s Image had tested positive for phenylbutazone. This meant the horse would lose its first place title and be moved to last place. The next day, Churchill Downs made the news public. The new winner was Forward Pass, who’d come in second behind Dancer’s Image.

Fuller sued over this decision, and the court cases dragged on for nearly five years while the first-place prize money sat in an escrow account. “He had a lot of money, and he was the first person to actually make a serious claim that the tests were inappropriate and that the racing chemist was incompetent,” Toby says.

A state judge actually ruled in Fuller’s favor, but the victory was short-lived because the Kentucky State Racing Commission appealed and won. …read more


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