By Joe Hickey
Silky catkins on the willows; daffodils grinning 'neath the windbreak: Derby day is a-coming.

Spring is everywhere. In the mailbox, too. Along with the garden catalogues and a service reminder from the tractor dealer, there's a welcome letter from Peter Fuller. We spar a few rounds from time to time, swap some yarns and--if only fleetingly--pause to smell the roses.

His name may not resonate among New Age Turf folk, but if you were with us in the tumultuous '60s--a decade marked by radical social change, the specter of Ho Chi Minh, the King and Kennedy brothers' assassinations, LSD, and flower power--Peter Fuller's name was as much a buzz as Woodstock.

On the home front, the '60s belonged to Buckpasser, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Damascus--and Dancer's Image.

As dusk settled on Louisville, May 4, 1968, Fuller's homebred gray Dancer's Image stood in the winner's circle following the 94th Kentucky Derby. But celebration was short-lived. Dancer's Image's post-race urine sample revealed traces of a forbidden medication--phenylbutazone (Bute)--an anti-inflammatory analgesic substance legal today and now as commonly used as blinkers and tongue straps.

Fuller "spent five years and $250,000" fighting his colt's disqualification in the nation's premier racing classic. It wasn't until Sept. 28, 1972, that Churchill Downs, satisfied all appeals had been exhausted, and that second-place finisher Forward Pass was the rightful winner, sent Calumet Farm the winner's purse of $138,587 (including interest) and the Derby trophy. The case remains the most celebrated whodunit in American racing history.

It was only the second time in Fuller's career that he had been counted out. As an amateur, boxing under the name Peter Bond, Fuller, a New England Olympic Trials champion, won 50 of 55 fights, 30 by knockout. There isn't any quit in this resolute World War II Marine.

Fuller, 82 on March 22, hasn't been able to get off the vet's list since, several years ago, his bull mastiff outbroke him leaving the garden gate, sending him sprawling. That left him with a painful hitch in his giddy-up.

"Bute would help that," a trainer jabbed. A body puncher, he winced, moved in with a rat-a-tat of his own. It still hurts, of course, when he gazes wistfully at that photo of Dancer's Image, Bobby Ussery up, posing with his family in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.

In 1972, Fuller, thinking he might emulate his father, entered the primary race for governor of Massachusetts, but bowed out when his family (wife, seven daughters, and a son) was threatened with bodily harm.

In 1985, the Fuller homebred Mom's Command swept the New York Filly Triple Crown of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks, then summered at Saratoga, where she added the prestigious Alabama Stakes.

Peter took a lot of heat for using a relatively inexperienced jockey aboard his title-contending Top Command filly. But he stuck by his guns, later to revel in kissing the winning jockey as she stepped off the scales. Jockey A. Fuller was Peter and Joan's daughter Abby Fuller, now a trainer in Florida.

Moxie runs deep in the Fuller family. Abby won about 600 races in a riding career interrupted by multiple childbirths and fractures--one a broken neck.

As a broodmare, champion Mom's Command hasn't approached her racetrack form, but she has an Albert the Great 2-year-old colt that Peter thinks enough of to have named for his father, Alvan Tufts Fuller, governor of Massachusetts, 1924-28. The colt's name is Alvan Was Great.

Pete's dad put Boston on rubber-tired, combustion-fired machines, selling the first two automobiles in the city. In 1910, the former bicycle mechanic/salesman owned the largest automobile dealership in the country.

"You know what they say about owners of untried 2-year-olds, don't you?" Fuller asked.

"I go to bed with a smile on my face and wake up with a smile on my face."

Peter Fuller, surrounded by his children's children, wants to smell the roses one more time.

Maybe, just maybe, Alvan Was Great will be the one.

JOE HICKEY, who lives in Easton, Md., has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.

Most Popular Stories