Trainer Lou Cavalaris (right) celebrates Dancer’s Image victory in the 1968 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The horse would be disqualified and the trainer suspended for drug use.
Louis C. Cavalaris Jr.
Born: (Hamilton, Ohio)
Died: May 2, 2013 (Toronto)
Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame (1995)
Etobicoke (Ontario) Sports Hall of Fame (2006)
For three decades, Louis Cavalaris Jr was one of North America’s top horse trainers. He was Canada’s leading trainer in races won six times and, in 1966, he led all trainers in North America with 175 winners.
Two years later, a horse he trained, Dancer’s Image, became the first winner of the Kentucky Derby to have the victory rescinded. Traces of a banned drug were found in the horse’s urine.
Cavalaris, who was born in Hamilton, Ont., served in the Merchant Marine in the Second World War. He returned home to work as a short-order cook. He also began working in the backstretch in Detroit in 1946, gaining a trainer’s license to care for his restaurateur father’s horses. He saddled his first winner in 1949 in Toronto, when the $2,000 claimer Perfect Melody won a race at Dufferin.
By 1957, he was working for Peter Del Greco, helping turn War Eagle, a $11,000 claimer, into a stakes winner who brought home more than $100,000.
Big Lou, as he was known, became a Canadian citizen in 1960, at the start of a decade when he become a prominent trainer. According to the Daily Racing Form, Cavalaris led Canadian trainers in victories in 1966, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1976, the year in which he won the Sovereign Award as outstanding trainer. He became the exclusive trainer for George Gardiner in 1969.
Dancer’s Image race at the 1968 Kentucky Derby was a dramatic one. A 7-2 second choice, Dancer’s Image rallied from last place to beat Forward Pass by a length and a half despite jockey Bobby Ussery losing his whip. The celebration was short-lived. Traces of phenylbutazone, a common anti-inflammatory drug known as bute, were found in the horse’s urine after the race and stewards ruled the horse disqualified and Forward Pass the victor. Phenylbutazone was legal in most jurisdictions but not allowed in Kentucky until 1974.
The dispute took racial overtones, as owner Peter Fuller had recently sent Dancer’s Image’s $60,000 winnings in a pre-Derby race to Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated the previous month. Fuller believed his donation angered Derby officials, who found in the drug test a means to punish him.
Cavalaris was suspended for 30 days. Though he had not administered the drug, he had known of its use.
A year earlier, the Cavalaris-trained Cool Reception suffered a broken right cannon bone while finishing second to Damascus.
He interrupted his training career to become racing secretary of the Ontario Jockey Club (now called the Woodbine Entertainment Group) for 10 years. He returned to training in 1988, retiring eight years later.
Among the horses he handled were Victorian Era, War Eagle, Carney’s Point, Mary of Scotland, Two Violins, Ice Water, Henry Tudor, Arctic Blizzard, Chatty Cavalier, and Yukon Eric.
In a 38-year career, he trained 2,004 winners, while his horses won $12.1 million US.