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IT WAS A BITTER PILL
Whitney Tower
May 20, 1968
The pill was a drug called Butazolidin, and tests revealed it had been given to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Disqualification followed, but that was only the beginning of racing's wildest controversy
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May 20, 1968

It Was A Bitter Pill

The pill was a drug called Butazolidin, and tests revealed it had been given to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Disqualification followed, but that was only the beginning of racing's wildest controversy

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At 7:30 on the evening of Saturday, May 4, Churchill Downs President Wathen Knebelkamp and about 100 guests were still celebrating, and rehashing, another successful Kentucky Derby in the track's private dining room. Champagne corks continued to pop as Peter and Joan Fuller slowly made their way to the door—having been duly toasted, photographed, backslapped and otherwise congratulated on the victory of their colt, Dancer's Image, in the most celebrated horse race in the world. Knebelkamp, at the weary end of months of effort to make the Derby a splendid spectacle and a truly run race, responded to one more laudatory comment. "Man, I'm telling you," he said with a sigh, "when the 'official' sign goes up, I am one happy fella!"

About the same time that Knebelkamp made his remark at the winner's party, activity of another kind at Churchill Downs was putting his feelings of relief in considerable jeopardy. Almost directly across from the track's finish line there are special stables known as the detention barn. Adjacent to these and protected by a high wire fence is a blue-and-white trailer, the property of the Kentucky State Racing Commission, in which postrace tests are conducted to determine whether illegal drugs are present in the saliva or urine of winners and other selected horses that have raced each day. The tests are complicated; the Kentucky commission, their laboratory chemists and attending veterinarians who conduct the tests as a matter of routine believe them to be as accurate as possible.

Immediately following a race the horse to be tested is led by his own groom to the detention barn where a saliva specimen is taken. He remains there until the assistant veterinarians, who are commission employees, also obtain a bottle of urine. This may take anywhere from a few minutes to more than two hours. Each specimen is labeled and numbered—a white tag with a number, followed by the letter S for the saliva samples, and a yellow tag with a number and the letter U for the bottles of urine. The labels are actually double tags. One half, with the horse's name and number on it, goes to the office of the track's three officiating stewards. The other half, with only the number on it, remains with the specimen. When the stewards receive all the tags representing specimens from the horses tested on any racing day, they put the whole batch in a small brown envelope which is then sealed, stamped across the fold in three places with red wax and locked up, generally overnight.

Meanwhile, back at the trailer, lab technicians have taken each specimen, tested it in several chemical processes that take roughly three hours and then marked each tag with a notice that reads "negative"—or, very occasionally, "positive." Inasmuch as these tags have nothing but serial numbers on them, the chemists in the trailer are not aware of the names of the horses whose specimens they are testing. It is the practice in Kentucky, as in most states where pari-mutuel betting is legalized, to test the winner of every race and also, at the discretion of the stewards, one or more of the also-rans. Mostly, the stewards and technicians are concerned with such illegal drugs as morphine, heroin, cocaine, strychnine, caffeine, codeine and derivatives that are known to act as stimulants or depressants and can drastically affect a horse's racing form.

When the testing is finished, often late at night, the lab crew reports its findings to the chief chemist, who makes up a written report that is delivered to the stewards on the morning of the next racing day. In the event that a "positive" has turned up in one of the tests, the tag from that specimen is placed beside the sealed brown envelope, which has been removed from its place of safekeeping. The envelope is then opened, in the presence of all three stewards, one of whom represents the racing commission, the other two track management. The state steward takes the "positive" numbered tag given to him by the chemists and matches its serial number with its counterpart from the brown envelope. Only then does anyone discover which horse carried traces of an illegal drug on the previous race day.

On May 4th—the day of the 94th Derby—the stewards at Churchill Downs, for reasons known only to themselves, ordered tests on only 10 horses: the winner of each of the nine races on the card, plus one additional horse from the Derby field drawn by lot. This last happened to be Kentucky Sherry, a 15-to-1 "field" entry who ran the fastest first six furlongs in Derby history (1:09 4/5) before dropping back to finish fifth. Immediately following his appearance in the winner's circle, and while his happy owner and friends were wending their way to Knebelkamp's party, Dancer's Image was led back around the track to the detention barn. There, after a saliva specimen was taken (it proved to be negative), he was walked around to "cool out" for half an hour. Then, under the direction of Assistant Veterinarian George Dickinson, an attempt was made to get a urine specimen. After half an hour of no success, Dickinson turned the job over to colleague Sidney Turner. A little past 7—roughly an hour and a half after Dancer's Image reached the detention barn—the specimen was obtained. During the long wait Robert Barnard, assistant to Trainer Lou Cavalaris, stood patiently by, never, according to Turner, "taking his eyes off me. He watched me the whole time I was with the horse."

The tagged bottle of the horse's urine was turned over for testing to the trailer's technician, Jimmy Chinn. For all he knew, the specimen with tag 3956 U on it came from an also-ran in the fourth race or the winner of the eighth (which had a post time of 5:42 p.m.). What Chinn did know at about 7:30 was that the liquid being tested from bottle 3956 U was changing from its natural color. He knew that he was looking at a "positive" from Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Derby.

Completing his tests, Chinn reported his findings to his boss, Kenneth Smith. Smith has a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Louisville, is a member of the Association of Official Racing Chemists and the longtime owner and president of Louisville Testing Laboratory, Inc., which is under contract to do the testing for the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

Smith's normal procedure, after receiving Jimmy Chinn's report, would be to prepare a written report to be given to the stewards on the following morning. In the event that a "positive" came up on a Saturday, the report would not be delivered until Monday morning. This time Smith felt he had news that couldn't wait.

The three Churchill Downs stewards, tired by their longest day's work of the year, had dispersed after the ninth race and gone home. All three are regarded by horsemen as extremely efficient and of the highest integrity. Lewis Finley Jr. is the steward representing the commission, and Leo O'Donnell and John G. Goode are the two appointed by the track. At about 11:30 on Derby night, with most parties in Louisville just getting up a decent head of steam, Lewis Finley Jr. was thinking of going to bed when his telephone rang. It was Kenneth Smith of Louisville Testing Laboratory, Inc. "We've got a 'positive' on Saturday's card," he said.

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