Bobby Ussery atop Proud Clarion in 1967 after winning the Kentucky Derby. He also took first place in the Derby in 1968, but his horse was later disqualified.Credit…Associated Press
Bobby Ussery, the Hall of Fame jockey who won the 1960 Preakness Stakes and the 1967 Kentucky Derby and amassed 3,611 victories between 1951 and 1974, died on Thursday in Hollywood, Fla. He was 88.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Robert Jr. told The Associated Press.
Ussery became the 10th jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing in America to win 3,000 races. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1980.
His most notable victory came aboard the 30-to-1 long shot Proud Clarion at the 1967 Derby after his original mount, Reflected Glory, was withdrawn due to sore shins. But the 1968 Derby would be a costly affair for Ussery and the rest of his colt’s entourage.
Ussery had given Dancer’s Image, a son of the great racehorse Native Dancer, an impressive ride at Churchill Downs that year. He circled the field from last to first, his colt crossing the finish line about a length and a half ahead of Forward Pass, even though Ussery had lost his whip.
But Churchill Downs authorities reported that the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, known as bute, had been found in Dancer’s Image’s post-race urine test. The drug was legal at some tracks at the time, but not at Churchill Downs.
That test result was puzzling since the track veterinarian, Alex Harthill, had given Dancer’s Image a dose of the drug to treat sore ankles six days before the Derby, seemingly enough time for it to clear his system.
Dancer’s Image was nonetheless disqualified by the stewards and placed last, and Forward Pass was declared the winner. The trainer of Dancer’s Image and his assistant each received 30-day suspensions but Ussery was not implicated in the purported administration of the pain killer.
Peter Fuller, the horse’s owner, unsuccessfully fought a four-year legal battle in the Kentucky courts in an effort to overturn the disqualification.
For all his achievements, Ussery fell short of a Triple Crown sweep; he never had a winner in the Belmont Stakes, the third link. His best finish in the Belmont was third place, in 1959 aboard Bagdad. But he won Canada’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate, aboard New Providence that year. (After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the race was renamed the King’s Plate.)
Robert Nelson Ussery was born on Sept. 3, 1935, in Vian, Okla., a farming town about 35 miles west of the Arkansas border. He and his four brothers, two sisters and mother lived on Depression-era relief checks after his father left home.
Bobby dropped out of school at age 13, shining shoes in the winter and picking spinach in the summer to help his family make ends meet.
Since he was only 5-foot-3, he tried his luck at racing. He had his first winner at 16, riding the colt Reticule to victory in the 1951 Thanksgiving Handicap in New Orleans. By the end of the 1950s he had ridden to victories in the Travers, Whitney and Alabama Stakes.
“Bobby Ussery is not a classy rider,” Time magazine wrote in a September 1964 profile. “He shifts around in the saddle, stretches too far forward, and arches too high off the horse. Fans of a bygone smoothy like Eddie Arcaro are appalled. ‘A real butcher on style’ they say. Then they line up at the parimutuel windows to bet whatever horse has Ussery up. The thing is, the butcher wins — on all kinds of horses, on all kinds of tracks.”
The article continued: “No jockey is shrewder at rating a short-winded speed horse on the lead; few are more accomplished at sitting chilly on a stretch runner, picking the instant to make a move. And when it comes to a photo finish, he knows every trick in the book: flicking a horse gently under the chin to get its head up at the wire, dropping the reins to let the horse’s neck stretch out.”
In addition to his son, Ussery’s survivors include four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, The Associated Press reported. His daughter, Debra Paramanis, died in 2010.
Ussery had kept the trophy that was awarded to him in the winner’s circle immediately after the 1968 Kentucky Derby since the disputed drug test had yet to come.
“As far as I’m concerned, I won the Derby in 1968 because they made the race official,” he told The Associated Press in 2019. “What they did with Dancer’s Image was another thing. It had no reflection on me.”