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May 27, 1968
In the Preakness, Dancer's Image was again disqualified, while in Lexington the racing commission planned open hearings on the Derby drug case
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May 27, 1968

The Dancer Plot Thickens

In the Preakness, Dancer's Image was again disqualified, while in Lexington the racing commission planned open hearings on the Derby drug case

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For horse racing's classic events, 1968 is the year of the foul-up—the general foul-up, the just plain foul, or even foul play. This bizarre road show opened in Louisville two weeks ago when Kentucky Derby "winner" Dancer's Image failed his urine test, was disqualified and set back to last place. Last week, with appropriate fanfare, the show moved to Baltimore, where the Derby's second-place "winner," Forward Pass, a narrow favorite of the highly excited crowd of 40,247, smothered his nine rivals in the 93rd Preakness. It was an event marred by another disqualification that, unfortunately, was imposed on Maryland-bred Dancer's Image, the local idol.

After his jockey, Bobby Ussery, tried to make Dancer's Image play the role of a tank at the eighth pole, he finished third, a head behind the King Ranch's Out of the Way, who crossed the wire six lengths behind Forward Pass. The Pimlico stewards, acting quickly and correctly, put Dancer's Image back to eighth place. As the Baltimore fans tottered home Saturday night everyone wondered aloud what on earth was going to happen next, especially in the Belmont Stakes on June 1.

Preakness Week started with the spotlight focused far from Pimlico's back-stretch. Instead, it centered on the paneled offices of Louisville's Churchill Downs. There the track's three stewards, Lewis Finley Jr., Leo O'Donnell and John G. Goode, seemed to be doing their best to break the nonspeed deliberation record set at N�rnberg. After 42 hours and 58 minutes—spread over a three-day period—in which they heard 11 witnesses and were exposed to the profound oratory of seven lawyers, the trio reached a decision that takes stewards at most other tracks half an hour or so during the course of their daily morning work. Their verdict, which everyone knew was coming, revealed that Dancer's Image had traces of Butazolidin in his urine after the Derby and that inasmuch as the trainer ( Lou Cavalaris) and his assistant (Robert Barnard) are held responsible for a horse in their care, they must receive due punishment. Each got a 30-day suspension, which in this case is tantamount to a slap on the wrist and obviously indicated that the stewards felt neither man was personally involved with, or had any knowledge of, any possible foul play. What apparently had occupied the stewards during the testimony and deliberation was what they reticently described in their official ruling as "other matters...deserving of further study, investigation and action...." These "other matters," along with the appeal filed by Owner Peter Fuller's lawyers on behalf of the trainers, will be brought into the open shortly in a new hearing before the Kentucky State Racing Commission. That hearing promises to be a blockbuster.

Prerace talk in Baltimore centered on the first two Derby finishers, and there were some interesting angles. How were the ankles of Dancer's Image holding up and how, in fact, was his training going? The ankles were fine, said Fuller on his return to Churchill Downs 11 days after his short-lived moment of glory, "but the training is crazy. Our exercise boy, Ernie Warme, is working the colt at Pimlico. Our groom, Russell Parchen, is asleep in a chair in the general office of Churchill Downs and Lou Cavalaris is moving around so much—from Baltimore to Canada to Louisville—that he's a physical wreck. For 48 hours he went without any sleep at all."

Considering all this, Dancer's Image was doing just fine. His right front ankle, the one that may give way at any time, was tapped and injected with cortisone early in Preakness Week, but the gray colt worked well at Pimlico and looked even better. His training was temporarily taken over by Bob Casey, Fuller's long-time New Hampshire farm manager. Casey and Fuller talked daily on the phone to Cavalaris, but, said Peter, "It's hardly the same—there is no substitute for Lou's knowing hands working over this horse or his sad brown eyes inspecting him for any minor flaw or a sign that something should be done. Training by remote control is difficult but, from what he was told the day before the Preakness, Lou definitely felt that Dancer's Image was ready to run and to run a winning race."

There were no such problems for Henry Forrest, who was about to give a leg up to Milo Valenzuela on Calumet Farm's Forward Pass. "I think we'll beat Dancer's Image," Henry said. "We had some bad luck in the Derby and the jock didn't ride the best race." This first open criticism of Milo's ride at Louisville was amplified by Eddie Arcaro, six times a winning Preakness rider and now a member of the CBS television racing crew: "Milo hit this colt after the break, and then he immediately tried to slow him down. Hell, Forward Pass is a horse, not a Rhodes scholar. He must have gotten all confused. But Milo is not going to make the same mistake twice." Most horsemen at Pimlico and a majority of racing writers agreed. "Shucks," said Mack Miller, trainer of Preakness entry Jig Time, "with Kentucky Sherry and Captain's Gig not here to blast out a really fast first mile, Forward Pass should be 1 to 10 to whip this field. He's got the speed to take the lead any time he wants it, and once he gets it—this time—I don't see how there'll be any catching him."

At the start of the 93rd Preakness, Valenzuela graciously allowed 88-to-1 shot Martins Jig and 17-to-1 shot Nodouble to take the lead while he dropped Forward Pass into fourth place behind Ringmaster. Dancer's Image, with Bobby Ussery practically standing up to hold him back, was closer than usual in sixth place and saving ground along the inside. Going into the far turn, Milo said later, "Forward Pass was still just galloping, but then I put him on the outside and ask him a little bit." What Valenzuela asked him was to move, and he did. Forward Pass had a three-length margin over fast-closing Out of the Way at the eighth pole and easily increased this to six lengths at the wire. It was a graceful, effortless performance, but there was real action going on behind the winner.

In all his races since Ussery began riding him in March, Dancer's Image has shown the agility to take advantage of racing luck in his dramatic dashes from back in the pack to take the lead in the late stretch. Convenient holes opened for him, and his own determination coupled with Ussery's skill got him through each time. Last Saturday was different. Turning for home and still on the inside, but now back in seventh place, Ussery saw no opening and made up his mind that he had to escape to the outside for free running room. But at the exact moment that Ussery put Dancer's Image into a full, all-out drive, Nodouble, ridden by Apprentice William McKeever, drifted out and gave Ussery an opening to shoot for. He shot for it, and just as he did Nodouble drifted back in. "If that colt had come out and stayed out," said Ussery later, "I would have been through the hole and off and gone. But he came back in again and made it a mighty rough trip for me."

The result of this incident was that Dancer's Image was driving toward a hole that did not exist any longer. Ussery was committed, through no fault of his own. Dancer's Image plowed into a flank of the tiring Martins Jig and nearly turned him sideways as he fought to get through between Martins Jig and Nodouble. Banging away like an unstoppable fullback, Dancer's Image finally burst into the clear—too late. He closed gallantly but was unable to beat Out of the Way, who had come flying up on the outside. "If the original hole had stayed open," said a depressed Ussery after watching the rough stuff played back to Fuller and him on the film patrol, "I think I could have won, and I know I would at least have been a close-up second." (There would have been no fuss about the Dancer's urinalysis this time; it was negative.)

The stewards agreed that the attack by Dancer's Image on Martins Jig was unintentional and let Ussery off with neither fine nor suspension. Not quite so lucky was Apprentice Boy McKeever, who had come to Pimlico with Nodouble via Arkansas's Oaklawn Park. After a creditable ride on the winner of the Arkansas Derby, McKeever thought the 16th pole was the finish and stood straight up in his irons for at least one full stride. He then got down to riding again and finished only two lengths behind Dancer's Image, but was moved up to third place when the Dancer was set back to eighth. The stewards threw a $100 fine at McKeever for his error, to which his only reply was, "Well, how should I know where the finish line is? I've never rid here before."

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