When Johnny Came Marching Home

Earlier this year, we recounted the iconic 4-year-old campaign of the great Dr. Fager in a five-part retrospective. Continuing our look back at 1968, and the 50th anniversary of one of the most unforgettable years in racing history, we turn our attention to the Belmont Stakes and the culmination of arguably the most controversial Triple Crown ever.

This was a year of student protests, assassinations, psychedelic drugs, and the height of the Vietnam War. Americans turned to sports to seek out their heroes. The last place they expected to see more turbulence was the Kentucky Derby.

But to set the stage, we go back to the 1968 Derby and the seemingly innocent and well-deserved victory by the late-closing Dancer’s Image, winner of the Wood Memorial and Governor’s Cup at Bowie. Unlike today, Dancer’s Image went into the Derby having already run 22 times, winning his first two stakes at Fort Erie and Greenwood in Canada. The son of Native Dancer was riding a three-race winning streak since trainer Lou Cavalaris removed his blinkers following a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Francis Scott Key Stakes and a third-place finish in the Prince George’s Stakes, both at Bowie.

Dancer’s Image’s huge stretch run in the Wood Memorial, in which he ran down two top-class horses, Iron Ruler and Verbatim, established him as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, along with the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner Forward Pass, the latest star from Calumet Farm. In both those victories, Forward Pass, who had romped in the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes and narrowly won the Everglades Stakes, won wire-to-wire, and his time of 1:47 4/5 in the Blue Grass missed Round Table’s track and stakes record by only two-fifths of a second.

So, when Dancer’s Image, second choice at 7-2,  rallied from dead last in the 14-horse Derby field, storming up the rail to beat 2-1 favorite Forward Pass by 1 1/2 lengths despite jockey Bobby Ussery dropping his whip turning for home, it established the two favorites as the clear-cut leaders of the division.

But that was far from the end of the story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby. As owner Peter Fuller was celebrating the victory that evening, a short distance away in a trailer laboratory near Churchill Downs, urine specimen 3956-U, belonging to Dancer’s Image, began changing from its natural color to that indicating a positive test. The culprit was an old nemesis of racing, phenylbutazone, a pain killer distributed under the name Butazolidan and better known as “Bute,” which was banned in Kentucky.

Four days later, the headlines in a major New York newspaper told the story: “Derby Winner Drugged.” This rocked the Sport of the Kings, setting it back 30 years to its nefarious days before urine testing when heroin, morphine, and other powerful drugs plagued the sport.

Dancer’s Image was disqualified and Forward Pass became the official winner of the Kentucky Derby. Fuller fought the ruling for years at a cost of $250,000 in legal fees, but in the end he had no other recourse but to give up the battle.

To this day, no one knows how this happened or even if Dancer’s Image’s test really came up positive. A month before the Derby, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated two days prior to Dancer’s Image winning the Governor’s Cup. Following the race, Fuller announced that he was donating the $60,000 winner’s purse to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

In Kentucky, Fuller’s goodwill gesture was not taken by many in the spirit it was given. According to the New York Times, Fuller received death threats, and Dancer’s Image was “derided with a racial epithet around Louisville, and one of Fuller’s stables was set on fire.”

Also, there were reports circulating that Mrs. Gene Markey, owner of Calumet Farm, was putting pressure on the Kentucky Racing Commission to uphold the decision.

So, the Dancer’s Image disqualification will forever remain tainted in controversy, mystery, and possible sinister activities, one of them surrounding a noted Kentucky veterinarian.

Ironically, one year after the Dancer’s Image case was closed following a five-year court battle, and at great cost to Fuller, the Kentucky Racing Commission legalized phenylbutazone.

Four days after the Derby, a race was run at Aqueduct that seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on the Triple Crown, as a striking golden chestnut colt with a white blaze owned by Greentree Stable named Stage Door Johnny broke his maiden in his fourth attempt, romping by six lengths in a sharp 1:35 1/5 for the mile. But it was accomplished under a feathery 114 pounds, eight pounds less than he carried in his three previous starts.

Stage Door Johnny’s trainer, John Gaver, was in the hospital at the time for a foot operation. When his son and assistant, John Gaver Jr., called him and told him about the race, the elder Gaver said without hesitation, “There’s our Belmont horse.”

With the stench of the Derby disqualification still permeating throughout the sport, it was soon time for the Preakness and one of the oddest rematches in the history of the Triple Crown, as Dancer’s Image was back to face Forward Pass.

Forward Pass was made the even-money favorite, with Dancer’s Image 6-5 and no one else in single-digit odds. This time, there was no doubt about the winner, as Forward Pass stalked the battling leaders, Martin’s Jig and Arkansas Derby winner Nodouble, then blew past them and drew off to a six-length victory. Dancer’s Image encountered heavy traffic while rallying in the upper stretch and had to make his own path, bulling his way through Nodouble and Martin’s Jig, soundly bumping the latter. He finished well to be third, just missing second by a head, but amazingly was disqualified again and placed eighth. For Fuller, the Triple Crown, which began in joyous celebration, had turned into a nightmare.

With Forward Pass now the official winner of the Derby and Preakness, everyone began seeing asterisks flashing before their eyes. Is this the way the 20-year-old Triple Crown drought is going to end? Are we going to add Forward Pass’s name to the elite list of Triple Crown winners alongside Citation, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, War Admiral and the other greats of the Turf?

Forward Pass no doubt was a very good horse, never having finished worse than fourth in 19 career starts. But he certainly did not seem to belong with the others in the Triple Crown pantheon, especially having been beaten in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, he barely held on for second, finishing a diminishing neck in front of a 32-1 shot named Francie’s Hat, who would have been the Derby winner in another jump or two.

Unfortunately, there did not appear to be a horse capable of stopping this ignominious chapter of the Triple Crown from being written, especially with Dancer’s Image coming up lame. His right ankle that had given him problems before flared up again, resulting in his retirement. He never did receive the credit he very well might have deserved for winning the Kentucky Derby. He eventually was sent to stand at stud in Japan, where he died in 1992 at age 27; a dubious footnote in Triple Crown history.

Five days after the Preakness, at the newly opened Belmont Park, which had been shut down for five years undergoing renovation, they ran a mile and an eighth allowance race called the Peter Pan purse, which was meant to serve as a possible Belmont Stakes prep for late-developing 3-year-olds.

Once again, here was Stage Door Johnny showing up shortly after a controversial Triple Crown race. Sent off as the 2-1 second choice, he opened a lot of eyes with his scintillating four-length victory over King Ranch’s hard-knocking and well-bred Draft Card.

With Dancer’s Image out of the picture, it became obvious that only two horses had a shot of stopping Forward Pass’ attempt to infiltrate the illustrious roster of Triple Crown winners – Stage Door Johnny and Withers Stakes winner Call Me Prince, who was coupled with Draft Card, both trained by the great Max Hirsch. Forward Pass was made the even-money favorite, with the Max Hirsch entry 9-5 and Stage Door Johnny 4-1. No one else in the nine-horse field was lower than 21-1.

John Gaver Jr. recalled, “My father was thinking of the Belmont Stakes for Stage Door Johnny after his 2-year-old year, even though he was still a maiden. He had a tremendous amount of ability, although he was very green. When he broke his maiden at 3, he did it the way a good horse should. We felt Forward Pass was the only horse to beat in the Belmont and he had gone through the rigors of the Triple Crown. We had worked hard with Stage Door Johnny over the winter, and he had filled out and developed. After the Peter Pan we were confident.”

Milo Valenzuela, as expected, sent Forward Pass right to the lead. Heliodoro Gustines on Stage Door Johnny was forced to steady early, dropping back to seventh, but he quickly got his colt in the clear and moved him up gradually. Forward Pass, meanwhile, was having his own way on the lead, setting fractions of :48 2/5 and 1:12 2/5. At the half-mile pole, the mile run in 1:37, Forward Pass, tracked all the way by Call Me Prince, maintained a 1 1/2-length lead, as Stage Door Johnny moved into third, a little over three lengths behind Forward Pass.

At the quarter pole, Forward Pass still led by 1 1/2 lengths with Stage Door Johnny now moving into second and the only threat to Forward Pass. This was it; the Triple Crown on the line, just a quarter of a mile away. Could the lightly raced Stage Door Johnny, who had never competed in a stakes race, run down a brilliant and classy Forward Pass and prevent the asterisk of all asterisks from tainting the Triple Crown?

At the eighth pole, Forward Pass clung to a head lead, and it was obvious Stage Door Johnny was the stronger of the two and had the favorite measured. But Forward Pass was not going to go down without a fight. He battled hard that final eighth of a mile, but Stage door Johnny was too strong, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Although Forward Pass’ final quarter in :24 4/5 would have won most Belmonts, Stage Door Johnny was too strong and outclosed him with one of the quickest final quarters ever in the Belmont.

For Greentree, this was their fourth Belmont Stakes victory following Twenty Grand, Shut Out, and Capot. For Stage Door Johnny, the Belmont was only the beginning. By the time he had rattled off subsequent victories in the Saranac Handicap in 1:35 2/5 and the mile and a quarter Dwyer Handicap in 2:01 3/5 under a burdensome 129 pounds, he was being considered a legitimate threat to Dr. Fager and Damascus for Horse of the Year honors. Racing fans were already anticipating another epic showdown at the end of the year, much like the 1967 Woodward between Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. But while training for the Travers Stakes over Greentree’s private track at Saratoga, Stage Door Johnny bowed a tendon and was retired to stud.

Stage Door Johnny would go on to become one of top stamina influences in the United States, his name appearing in the pedigrees of a number of top-class horses. His daughter Never Knock produced Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin.

At Greentree, Stage Door Johnny became buddies with the following year’s Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year Arts and Letters and the two stallions would remain close friends for the next 26 years until Stage Door Johnny’s death in 1996 at age 31. In their younger days, they would race each other along the fence every day, putting on the brakes just before reaching the gate, kicking up a cloud of dirt. They would quickly look over at each other as if to see who won, then walk back up the hill and come charging back down. Each one would become visibly upset when the other was led to the breeding shed.

When they became too old to race they would stand under the same shade tree that separated their paddocks and just keep each other company.

Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters had become so close that when Gainesway Farm took over the Greentree property in 1989, part of the agreement was that both stallions remain together in adjoining paddocks. When Stage Door Johnny died, he turned over his title as the oldest living Belmont winner to Arts and Letters, who held it until his death two years later at age 32.

John Hay Whitney’s famed Greentree Stud is long gone, as is the memory of Stage Door Johnny and his historic victory in the Belmont Stakes. By depriving Forward Pass of the Triple Crown and preventing an eyesore asterisk next to his name, Stage Door Johnny prolonged the drought that was appropriately ended by the legendary Secretariat five years later.

No one knows how great Stage Door Johnny could have been and how he would have fared against the mighty Dr. Fager and Damascus. But one thing is for certain, with those two legendary 4-year-olds dominating the sport, the mighty mite rags to riches Dark Mirage becoming the first filly to sweep the Filly Triple Crown, romping in all three races, and the opening of the new Belmont Park and the emergence of the flashy chestnut Stage Door Johnny as a potential superstar, 1968, despite its controversial Triple Crown, truly was a time for greatness in Thoroughbred racing and a much-needed escape from one of the most tumultuous years in American history.

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