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'I CAME TO WIN. I'VE NEVER BEEN SO CONFIDENT'
When square-jawed Peter Fuller, the son of a former Massachusetts governor, gets it into his Harvard-trained mind to tackle a project, there is no easy way to lead him off course. At Harvard, where he was a member of the class of 1946, Fuller was a first-class heavyweight wrestler; and as an AAU boxer he won all but five of 55 bouts. Sixteen years ago Fuller, who provides comfortably for his wife and seven little Fullers by selling about 1,800 new Cadillacs annually, turned his mind to horse racing. He got into the game in a modest way and set a few goals for himself. He would pick good trainers and never interfere with them. He would buy and breed the best he could afford, always using as first consideration the availability of leading bloodlines. And he would never forget the ambition of every horse owner—to win a Kentucky Derby.
A month ago, while most horsemen were talking about such Derby candidates as Calumet Farm's Forward Pass, Peter Kissel's Iron Ruler and Capt. Harry Guggenheim's Captain's Gig, Peter Fuller had a gleam in his calculating eye. When his Maryland-bred Dancer's Image, a handsome gray son of Native Dancer and Noor's Image, won the Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie, Peter turned down $1 million for him and shipped him to Aqueduct to tackle some of the big boys in the Wood Memorial. Dancer's Image knocked off that field, too, and the only place to go was Churchill Downs. He was following in the footsteps of Kauai King, who also was bred in Maryland, is a son of Native Dancer and won the Governor's Gold Cup.
Operating on the theory that if you can't go first class you better stay home on the farm (in Fuller's case that is Runnymede Farm in North Hampton, N.H.), Peter decided to invade Louisville in the style of a proud New Englander whose place of business is on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. First he turned down $2 million for his gallant gray colt and asked his Louisville buddy, Ed McGrath, to insure Dancer's Image for $1.5 million. ("Less than two months ago," said Fuller, "we had him insured for just $150,000.") Next he reserved most of an Eastern Airlines jet, packed up his wife, mother-in-law, five of the seven little Fullers and 45 close friends and business associates and took off for Churchill Downs.
On his first day there last week Fuller was sitting in McGrath's box in exclusive G section. Suddenly he turned to his host and said, "Ed, let's take a dry run right now on the shortest way from here down to the tunnel leading to the track and the winner's circle. I sure didn't bring Dancer's Image all the way to Louisville just to see my colors out there. I came to win this race and I've never been so confident." Later he was to explain that confidence: "The turning point for this colt came when we took the blinkers off him and put Bobby Ussery on. That was March 30 at Bowie, and we haven't lost since."
Peter Fuller made his dry run through the old Downs passageways that uncrowded afternoon and discovered it to be an uncomplicated breeze. Last Saturday afternoon, with the usual 100,000 in attendance and an estimated 18 million tuned in to CBS's nationally televised show, Peter made the run again. This time, floating along like a graceful athlete, he made it clear across the track in plenty of time to greet Dancer's Image who, as the 7-to-2 second choice, had just humbled favorite Forward Pass in the 94th running of the Kentucky Derby. Fuller had the broad smile and assured grin of a man who knew all along that this was exactly what was going to happen. It also concluded a fine parlay for the city of Boston, the Celtics having won the professional basketball championship on Thursday evening in Los Angeles.
Although Saturday's Derby will not go into the books as one in which classic colts outnumbered the bums, it nonetheless succeeded in generating tremendous interest. This was so largely because few people shared Peter Fuller's unabashed confidence—either in Dancer's Image or in any of his 13 rivals. One result of this widespread difference of opinion was an alltime Derby day betting record: $2,350,470 on the Derby alone and $5,506,069 on the nine-race card.
But long before the betting began it was apparent that the size of the field would not be determined so much by the eagerness of owners and trainers to run as by the number of colts who could escape from the veterinarians long enough to hobble over to the starting gate. Stable rumors flew faster than Fuller's jet. Captain's Gig still had a bad hoof. One of Forward Pass's knees was acting up. And Dancer's Image had trouble with his right front ankle and maybe the left one, too. When his trainer, Lou Cavalaris, forsook speed sharpeners and sent the colt instead on long gallops of four miles one day and three the next, many wrote off his chances there and then.
Cavalaris, long one of the most successful trainers on the Canadian circuit, seemed to be spending more of his time commuting to Detroit and Canada's Fort Erie than at Churchill Downs's Barn 24. And Fuller himself, sticking to his rule of noninterference, was able to shed little light on his colt's condition. "I know nothing about training," he said, "so there's no point in pretending I do. If my trainer told me my horse galloped 10 miles instead of four, I'd probably say, 'Fine,' because it's none of my business. Sure, this colt, like many other Native Dancers, has weakness in his ankles, but he won't be a Derby starter if Lou doesn't think he's ready and fit for his very best effort. It's as simple as that."
By Derby morning—with the promise of a warm and windless May day—it was clear that Dancer's Image would be a starter even if Cavalaris had to bring the gray over to the paddock with both his front feet swathed in cold-water bandages. He had stood for hours in tubs of ice.