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IT WAS A BITTER PILL

May 20, 1968
May 20, 1968

Table of Contents
May 20, 1968

The Bitter Pill
Elegant Courses
Dick Tiger
Today's Students
People
Rugby
Track & Field
Sunday Sin
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

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

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!"

This is an article from the May 20, 1968 issue Original Layout

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.

Stewards the world over are accustomed to odd-hour phone calls dealing with any of hundreds of racetrack problems. As Smith's words echoed in the receiver at his ear, Finley was faced with deciding among three alternatives. He could try to find his fellow stewards and ask them to join him and Smith at the track to open the brown envelope right away. He could telephone them and suggest they all meet for the same purpose Sunday morning. Or, finally, he could treat Derby night as just another Saturday night and let the matter await routine attention Monday morning. Finley made up his mind and told Smith, "Submit your report Monday morning, the same as always. Good night."

Lewis Finley Jr. went to sleep, and so, hours later, did the rest of Louisville's citizenry and their exhausted party going guests. It had been a good Derby.

On Monday morning, their early track chores completed, Finley, O'Donnell and Goode finally got around to that matter of opening the brown envelope at around 11 o'clock. There is no official record of exactly what words Lewis Finley uttered when he matched up the two halves of tag 3956 U, and it's probably just as well. "I don't think I could ever repeat it," he said, recalling the incident three days later. "I guess it was pretty rough." But the rough part was still to come. Wathen Knebelkamp was just going to lunch in the track cafeteria when the stewards caught up with him. They told him that Dancer's Image had come up "positive" and would have to be disqualified and placed last, making Calumet Farm's Forward Pass the official Derby winner.

From that moment confusion took charge. Much of it might have been avoided had the news been broken right then, or even earlier. But the Churchill Downs stewards proceeded strictly by the book. Since a horse's trainer is held responsible for his well-being at all times, it is the trainer who first must be notified when the track discovers something amiss. The trouble was that Cavalaris, a busy man, was not easy to locate. Paging him throughout the track and stable area and in Louisville proved fruitless. It was not until that evening that he was found at home in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough with his wife Helen and their two sons. A Churchill Downs official told him the news over the telephone and asked him to return to Louisville immediately. Cavalaris says, "The words staggered me. I was spellbound. I just stood there. I've been in this game 21 years and I've never done anything wrong yet. I'm innocent, and so are my men. They love Dancer's Image, just as I do."

It wasn't until midday Tuesday, about 67 hours after Dancer's Image had "won" his Derby and 63 hours after specimen 3956 U began to change color, that the rest of the world was let in on the year's major sports story. And for the next three days rumors flew, tempers occasionally flared and some things were said that later were retracted or at least regretted. The first error was committed by the stewards, who issued a statement on a memo pad that had as its letterhead, "Steward's Ruling." When Knebelkamp called a press conference on Tuesday afternoon he announced the news as an official ruling. The stewards then had to admit it was not. A ruling only becomes official following a hearing, which was not to be held until the following Monday. "We only issued a statement," said Finley, trying to clear up the confusion, "and some have misinterpreted this as a ruling." There was no doubt, however, that such a ruling was soon to come, for rule 14.06 of the Rules of Racing and the Kentucky State Racing Act plainly states that horses who come up "positive" shall not participate in the purse distribution. "To put it bluntly," says Knebelkamp, "rule 14.06 is as plain as a goat's ass going uphill. All you have to do is look at it."

Peter Fuller, meanwhile, was acting a little like an overtrained fighter, straining to throw his Sunday punch but not quite sure where to throw it. He tossed a first jab at Knebelkamp when he claimed that the security at Churchill Downs was not all it might have been during Derby week. He said he had found one of the day guards asleep on duty. (A few nights later, before Dancer's Image had shipped out to Pimlico to prepare for this week's Preakness, Louisville Courier-Journal Reporters Billy Reed and Jim Bolus tested the security and also discovered a 72-year-old watchman asleep at his post.) "I don't want to poke holes in racing," said Fuller, "but this sort of security is enough to make a cat laugh."

Fuller had other reasons to be irritated and wary. While many people now recognize and greet him enthusiastically on the street and elsewhere, there is another not-so-pleasant side to being racing's newest personality. He has received countless abusive letters, some obviously from cranks. There have been insinuations that his colt was "got at" because Kentuckians do not want Maryland-breds to win their Derby. Some have made it plain that they were not in sympathy with Fuller's gesture when he turned over his winning purse of $62,000 to Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. after the April 6th Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie. One telegram, signed with a fictitious name, read, SUGGEST YOU GIVE THE DERBY PURSE TO EITHER RAP BROWN OR STOKELY CARMICHAEL.

Fuller has also received hundreds of wires and calls of congratulations—and then sympathy—from some of the more important people in racing. He had two from Calumet Farm's Lucille Markey. But, as Mrs. Markey herself pointed out, "The horse couldn't have done it by himself." Then who did?

Dancer's Image was discovered to have retained traces of a drug known as phenylbutazone, commonly known as Butazolidin (or just plain "Bute" in the lingo of horsemen), in his system. Considered neither a stimulant nor a depressant, Butazolidin is classified as an analgesic, a painkiller very effective in alleviating inflammation of joints. Humans take it much as they take cortisone. Racehorses have been taking it for years, and, in fact, it is perfectly legal for a horse to be treated with Butazolidin when he is merely in training and recuperating from an ailment. By the early '60s most states had banned Butazolidin for horses about to race, largely on the ground that, as a temporary reliever of soreness and unsoundness, it must have some effect on a horse's running form. In other words, using it or withdrawing it could result in a horse running "hot" or "cold."

Differences of opinion persist, however. Many horsemen are in favor of using Butazolidin in order to get every bit of run out of their horses. Many veterinarians favor it, too, because it brings them more business. One of them once said, "If we scratched all the sore horses going to the post there would be no racing at all. Easily 75% of all horses running today have something wrong with them. The other 25% are perfectly sound but have one drawback as racers—they can't run fast." In 1960 Calumet Farm's Jimmy Jones told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED he was against Butazolidin for several reasons. "First, no matter what you call a medication, in the public mind it's dope. Well, it has taken horse racing a long time to buildup the public's confidence, and it shouldn't do anything to lose that confidence. The second reason is that Butazolidin is going to encourage many trainers to run horses which are definitely hurting and should be laid up for repairs instead of running. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned and maybe I'm wrong, but I believe that if horses can't run good enough on oats and hay then they shouldn't be running at all."

Before Dancer's Image won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 20 he had been treated by New York Veterinarian Mark (Mike) Gerard. Despite his tricky right front ankle, the colt had never been given Butazolidin. Following his Wood victory, Fuller gave Cavalaris the green light to make the trip to Churchill Downs. Fuller then called a number of friends in Kentucky for advice on the choice of a local veterinarian for Dancer's Image. The overwhelming consensus among knowledgeable horsemen, he recalls, was, "Dr. Alex Harthill is a wizard. Derby winners come out of his barn."

"That was good enough for me, "says Fuller, and on the night of Thursday, April 25th, Dancer's Image, accompanied by Groom Russell Parchen, arrived at Stall 7 of Churchill Downs' Barn 24, known everywhere on the grounds as Harthill's barn. At 43, Dr. Alex Harthill has been a practicing veterinarian for 20 years. He is tall and slender, has an athletic build, is an easy and willing conversationalist and is always very busy. If you met him in the cardroom of the Queen Elizabeth, Dr. Harthill would not strike you as an easy mark for a game of gin. He counts most of the leading trainers in Kentucky and Chicago as his friends, and during Derby week, when not busy at Barn 24 or at the barns housing other Derby contenders, Dr. Harthill can often be found entertaining such visiting dignitaries as Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker.

Dr. Harthill is also no stranger to trouble in racing. In August 1954, after Mister Black, owned by the Hasty House Farm of Mr. and Mrs. Allie Reuben, had won the Grassland Handicap at Chicago's Washington Park, tests showed the presence of the drug amphetamine. Dr. Harthill admitted he had made a mistake in not reporting to track officials that he had administered the drug. He took the matter to court, which revoked his 60-day suspension, and he was granted a license when he applied three years later. The following March he was arrested in New Orleans on charges of bribery of a public official and stimulation of horses at the Fair Grounds track. The case was heard a year later, and Dr. Harthill was cleared of both bribery and doping charges. In the late '50s he settled out of court with the Federal Government when the Internal Revenue Service went after him for $38,157 he allegedly owed in back taxes.

When Dancer's Image arrived to become Dr. Harthill's star patient for the 94th Derby, his instructions from Fuller were to take orders from Lou Cavalaris or, through him, from Assistant Trainer Bob Barnard or Groom Russell Parchen. Cavalaris' first orders were to follow the same medication program used by Dr. Gerard before the running of the Wood Memorial. These instructions, according to Dr. Harthill, were followed.

"On Sunday morning, April 28 [as Dr. Harthill noted in an official statement made on Tuesday, May 7 to Alvin Schem, director of security at Churchill Downs], Mr. Cavalaris and I inspected the right fore ankle of Dancer's Image. We agreed the horse, obviously, had slightly sprained the ankle while at exercise on Saturday and that he should receive four (4) grams of Phenylbutazone. I administered it. This was approximately one-hundred fifty-two (152) hours before the running of the Derby. It is my professional opinion, and I believe the consensus of the veterinary profession, that a normal dose (as was four grams in this case) of Phenylbutazone will be completely expelled by a horse's system within a maximum of seventy-two (72) hours after administration." The day after Dr. Harthill made this statement to Security Chief Schem, the Louisville Courier-Journal quoted him as saying flatly to Staff Writer Gail Evans, "No such drugs were administered by me."

In talking to me on May 9, Dr. Harthill described administering the Butazolidin pill, which looks like two enlarged Chiclets fastened end to end: "You take a balling gun, which looks like a large syringe, anoint the pill, which is about an inch and a half long by half an inch wide, with mineral oil and put it in the end of the gun. Then you put it in the horse's mouth and eject it."

Dr. Harthill's official statement continued, "On Monday morning, April 29, Dancer's Image had developed a case of loose bowels and a bellyache. At that time it was not known if the Phenylbutazone or the fresh rye straw or grass he might have eaten caused this ailment. Mr. Cavalaris and I agreed the horse should have no more grass, no more Phenylbutazone, and that all the new rye straw should be removed from the horse's stall and replaced with wheat straw. These changes were made and observed. The horse's system returned to normal immediately."

If traces of Butazolidin were found in Dancer's Image's urine 152 hours after what Dr. Harthill claims was the first, last and only treatment he gave the colt, then Dancer's Image is a very extraordinary animal. Either that, or he was "got at," as Fuller suggests. "I never heard of a horse retaining any trace of this for more than 72 hours," says Dr. Harthill, "and, just to make sure, I never administer it within four days of a race. I take the extra day to play it safe." Dr. Gene M. Bierhaus, for 17 years a veterinarian for the Colorado Racing Commission—a state where Butazolidin is still legal for horse racing—says 70% of horses eliminate the drug within 30 hours and that the longest retention he is aware of is 78 hours.

Last weekend Fuller and Cavalaris were preparing for Monday's hearing at Churchill Downs. Fuller had retained Louisville Attorney Arthur W. Grafton and Horseman-Lawyer Edward S. (Ned) Bonnie. Evidence was to be submitted by all parties, as well as by representatives of racing's Thoroughbred Protective Agency, the track police and, possibly, the FBI. "We are taking nothing for granted," said Ned Bonnie. "We don't assume that the test was right or wrong, but one of the purposes of the hearing is to determine if the opinion of the state chemists is enough to justify the verdict."

Fuller, visiting Dancer's Image at Pimlico last Friday, was more frustrated than ever. "I'm expecting the worst. At the hearing the stewards will probably say that Lou Cavalaris was a bad boy and must be suspended. I feel responsible. Lou shouldn't have to vindicate himself, but if he gets suspended I'm going to stick by my word and not run Dancer's Image until Lou can train him again."

At Pimlico's Barn EE Lou Cavalaris was busy wrapping his colt's ankles in cold-water bandages. When he stood up he put on a brave smile and said, "All I want are the facts. If the stewards see fit to give me days, because the trainer is responsible for his horse, they are doing their job. But it shouldn't have anything to do with whether Dancer's Image runs in the Preakness or not."

As the hearing progressed, it appeared Fuller was coming around to his trainer's view that Dancer's Image should run in the Preakness, regardless of the stewards' decision. There was also strong indication that Peter Fuller was becoming disenchanted with his "wizard" veterinarian.

PHOTOJERRY COOKEHandsome, popular Dr. Alex Harthill conceded he had administered the pill to Dancer's Image but insisted it was six days before the race.PHOTOJERRY COOKEAfter a pill is placed in the end of the balling gun, it is ejected into the horse's throat.TWO PHOTOSJERRY COOKETwo days after the race, the tag with the name Dancer's Image was matched to the one on the specimen found "positive" in the trailer laboratory.PHOTOJERRY COOKESteward Lewis Finley Jr. was in no hurry to find out which Derby-day horse was drugged.PHOTOJERRY COOKESays Pete Fuller, "I'm not going to run Dancer's Image until Cavalaris can train him again."PHOTOJERRY COOKESays Lou Cavalaris, "Peter's gesture is very nice...but if the horse is fit he should run."