Triple Crown Near-Misses: Forward Pass and the Asterisk

Forward PassAfter a decade of futility, the storied Calumet Farm seemed to be back in the spotlight. The farm had saddled seven Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown winners but had not experienced victory in the Kentucky Derby since 1958’s Tim Tam.

Now it had another Derby contender with Forward Pass. The colt had won only 3 of 10 starts at 2 but had rebounded with wins in the 1968 Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. His only real competition was Dancer’s Image, the son of Native Dancer, who suffered from sore ankles and had to stand in ice buckets for two hours a day.

Derby Disqualification

When the gates opened on the 1968 Derby, there was an immediate collision between the two horses caused by Gleaming Sword. Kentucky Sherry set a mercurial pace with the fastest opening quarter-mile and three-quarters of a mile in Derby history. He built a two-length lead, but soon began to tire. Forward Pass was right there to take the lead early in the stretch. But here came Dancer’s Image. The colt, who had been 15 lengths behind, responded to urging from jockey Bobby Ussery, who had dropped his whip at the quarter pole.

It didn’t matter. Dancer’s Image overtook Forward Pass in the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

And then he didn’t.

A post-race drug test revealed the existence of Phenylbutazone (“Bute”) in Dancer’s Image’s system – an anti-inflammatory drug that was legal in many states, but not Kentucky. Trainer Louis Cavalaris denied that he had given the colt the drug, but three days after the race, stewards disqualified Dancer’s Image. It was the first disqualification of a Derby winner in the race’s 94-year history. Forward Pass, who finished second, was awarded first place.

Preakness Disqualification

The controversy would linger for years in the courts, but horse racing could not wait for that. Two weeks later, the two colts renewed their rivalry in the Preakness. As in the Derby, the two bumped at the start, allowing 87-1 longshot Martin’s Jig to take the lead and set a pedestrian pace. Forward Pass trailed about four lengths back, while Dancer’s Image plodded away nine lengths back.

Early in the homestretch, Forward Pass made his move and took the lead. Dancer’s Image also worked his way up toward the front, moving between horses and bumping 173-1 shot Martin’s Jig in the process. But his stretch run came up short this time as Forward Pass won by an impressive six lengths over Out of the Way. Dancer’s Image was a head behind in third place.

And then he wasn’t.

For the second straight race, stewards disqualified Dancer’s Image, this time for bumping Martin’s Jig. He was demoted to eighth place for the infraction, and another asterisk appeared on a Triple Crown race.

A Tiring Belmont

Despite the Derby controversy, Forward Pass was in a position to win the Triple Crown. A victory in the Belmont Stakes was awaiting him and immortality.

Dancer’s Image’s ankles had finally caught up with him; he was retired after the Preakness. Without the chance of knocking into the colt this time, Forward Pass went to the lead at the start, taking a 1 1/2-length lead for the first mile and a quarter. But Stage Door Johnny, a fresh colt who just won his maiden 24 days earlier, came from nine lengths back and overtook Forward Pass in the homestretch to win.

Forward Pass came back to win the American Derby and shared 3-Year-Old Horse of the Year honors with Stage Door Johnny. He retired after his 3-year-old season, amassing 10 wins, 4 seconds and 2 thirds in 23 starts.

The Kentucky Racing Commission finally approved Phenylbutazone in 1974 after medical research showed that it didn’t enhance a horse’s performance.

For more information on Dancer’s Image and the disqualification, read Milton C. Toby’s Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.