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50 Years Ago: "1968 Was a Horrific Year"
1968 was a horrible year
Horses are big business in Kentucky, and even school kids knew about the controversy in Louisville 50 years ago. It all started with the horse race on the first Saturday in May, as far as we know.
With Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn and presidential candidate Richard Nixon watching from the bleachers, Dancer’s Image came from dead last, 14 lengths back, to overtake 13 horsepower and cross the wire a length and a half before Forward Pass. Nunn laughed as Nixon dramatically ripped his losing ticket in half.
But Nixon may have been a bit rushed, depending on which horse he chose. Three days after the race, stewards at Churchill Downs ordered Boston car dealer Peter Fuller to return the trophy and winning purse, and named Forward Pass the winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby. Post-race testing revealed that Dancer’s Image had phenylbutazone in his blood sample.
It is an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, commonly used today when horses suffer from joint swelling. But in 1968, it was illegal at Kentucky racetracks. Fuller’s vet prescribed it during training, but allowed six days for it to clear the horse’s bloodstream before racing. Fuller, his vet, and the horse’s trainer were unable to explain why Dancer’s Image still had phenylbutazone in his system on race day.
I was a weird 8th grader who read Racing Form’s past performance charts fluently and had memorized many racing trivia. But we were also a politically aware family. My dad ran for the House of Representatives on “Clean Gene” McCarthy’s anti-war 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 exactly a month before the 1968 Derby, but he was in Louisville a year earlier helping local black people, led by his brother, AD King, protest housing discrimination.
Locals had halted 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 chaos at the track.
In April 1968, Fuller entered Dancer’s Image during a tune up for the Derby, the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York.
When his horse won, Fuller donated the purse to recently widowed Coretta Scott King. I saw two different numbers – $62,000 and $77,415. Anyway, it was a lot of money in 1968 dollars. He didn’t make it public, but it was common knowledge on the track and a race announcer mentioned it on TV .
The gift made friends and foes for Fuller. There was hate mail. There have been anonymous death threats. A mysterious fire broke out in one of his stables. He therefore asked the management of Churchill Downs to step up security. They refused.
Fuller was quite a demanding guy. He was an ex-Marine and the son of a Republican ex-governor. His father was one of the richest men in America, and Fuller was no slouch himself.
After growing up in a household with 11 servants, Fuller was used to doing whatever he wanted. It was customary to provide owners of Derby horses with four tickets. He asked for 50.
The brash, tough Yankee may have alienated the courtly Southerners he should have been trying to charm. Instead, he made condescending remarks about “rednecks.”
In the end, he didn’t get the extra security from Churchill Downs, and he didn’t hire his own. The security at his racing barn, he recalled, was “an old guy sitting in a chair and asleep.”
Fuller later said he believed he was “rigged”, that an unknown intruder entered his horse’s stall to inject the disqualifying phenylbutazone. Either that or the blood sample was adulterated.
Fuller appealed the track marshals’ decision to the Kentucky Racing Commission and lost. He took his case to court and won in 1970. Dancer’s Image was again the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1968.
But then the state of Kentucky took that decision to a federal appeals court and won its case against Fuller and Dancer’s Image. It was final. Fuller said he spent $250,000 on his futile lawsuits.
A billboard at his New Hampshire horse farm stubbornly boasts that it is the home of Dancer’s Image, winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby. But that sign is false.
Forward Pass is the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1968. The colt was no fluke either – he won the Preakness and barely missed a Triple Crown sweep on June 1 after leading the Belmont to the sixteenth pole final.
Three days later, as the 13-year-olds began their summer vacation, there was another real-world tragedy, the second in two months. which made horse racing terribly frivolous.
“Give me your weary, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched wastes of your teeming shore,” poet Emma Lazarus wrote, addressing the Old World. “Send them to me, the storm shaken towards me. I raise my lamp beside the golden door.”
And so Palestinian immigrant Bishara Sirhan brought his family to America. The poet also asked the Old World to “guard, ancient lands, your legendary splendor”. But when Bishara brought his 12-year-old son, Sirhan Sirhan, to California, he imported a monstrous ego and centuries of ancient hatreds into his American sanctuary.
Young Sirhan appeared westernized as a teenager, with a pompadour hairstyle, and even in old age today he looks like a kind gentleman. But he testified in court that he murdered Bobby Kennedy “with 20 years of premeditation”. His newspaper confirmed that he was seething with resentment against Jews and against the New York senator who was in favor of selling fighter jets to Israel.
He locked up the Los Angeles hotel where Kennedy was watching the primary election results with supporters. Kennedy won the California and South Dakota presidential primaries on June 4. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson had long since retired from the race. There was great hope among Americans who had supported the late President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier.
As Bobby Kennedy was leaving the party through a hotel kitchen, Sirhan intercepted him and shot him three times, one in the head and two in the back. Like Phenylbutazone, Sirhan undid the win. And in my mind, I see Richard Nixon piecing together the shreds of his Derby ticket.
Of course, no one can guess how different the world might have been had Bobby Kennedy been elected president in November instead of Richard Nixon. Like his older brother, he had a penchant for adultery. But he was a practicing Catholic, under the influence of Cardinal Spellman. Unlike his younger brother Teddy, he did not try to harmonize public policy with his personal immorality.
If older brother John’s Supreme Court nomination alone is any indication. a court populated by three Bobby Kennedy nominations could have decided Roe v. Wade differently.
Byron White, JFK’s court appointee, disagreed not only with Roe, but with all subsequent rulings that applied him as binding precedent. Nixon, unlike JFK, appointed pro-abortion Justices Lewis Powell and Harry Blackmun, and pro-abortion Chief Justice Warren Burger to the Court.
If Bobby Kennedy instead of Richard Nixon had filled these vacancies on the Supreme Court with the same type of justices as Byron White, they could have teamed up with William Rehnquist and White to form a 5-4 majority for the protection of the unborn children. Tens of millions of American children could have been spared the abortion holocaust that followed Roe vs. Wade and continues today. Thanks to Sirhan Sirhan and the people who welcomed him to our country, we will never know for sure.
“1968,” said Fuller, “was a horrible year.”
by Bart Stinson
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