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Peter Fuller, auto dealer, racehorse owner, and boxer; at 89

Peter Fuller and wife Joan with Dancer's Image and jockey Richard Mitchell in 1968.

Frank O’Brien/globe staff/file 1968

Peter Fuller and wife Joan with Dancer's Image and jockey Richard Mitchell in 1968.

As the horse he owned ran dead last in the Kentucky Derby, Peter Fuller stood atop his chair at Churchill Downs in 1968, pumping his fists and urging Dancer’s Image along at the top of his lungs.

“There you go, baby doll,’’ he yelled, sensing a spirit others missed. “That’s it! Push it!’’

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Threading through the pack, Dancer’s Image raced to a thrilling, come-from-behind victory that was only slightly less improbable than what followed.

A couple of days later, officials said the horse had tested positive for traces of an anti-inflammatory drug that, at the time, was banned in Kentucky. Dancer’s Image became the only horse ever to be stripped of the Derby crown, a ruling that survived years of legal challenges. The decision became all the more painful in 1974, when Kentucky’s racing commission sanctioned use of the drug that had prompted the disqualification.

“The pain is real,’’ Mr. Fuller, who never accepted the ruling, told the Globe in 2008, tears welling in his eyes four decades after the famous race.

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Mr. Fuller, who ran his family’s automobile dealerships and also was a successful boxer as a young man, died of cancer Monday in the Edgewood Centre skilled-care facility in Portsmouth, N.H. He was 89 and had lived in North Hampton, N.H.

A son of a former Massachusetts governor, he was born to wealth, but paid it little heed. Hobbled by illness as a child, Mr. Fuller willed himself into excellent shape and became a wrestler in college. Stepping into the boxing ring, he won the New England Amateur Athletic Union and Golden Gloves heavyweight divisions.

Before becoming president of his family’s thriving Cadillac dealership, which his family founded in the early 1900s, Mr. Fuller joined the US Marine Corps, only to be discharged because of his flat feet. In the early 1950s, he turned to horse racing and groomed winners at his Runnymede Farm in New Hampshire.

“He was sort of a character out of Hemingway,’’ said Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum in Boston. “He was a boxer legitimately. He wasn’t posing as one; he was one, and he had friends in every strata of society. He was one of those people as apt to know the guy working the elevator in the building as the guy on the executive floor who he had an appointment with. That was Peter Fuller.’’

Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, said Mr. Fuller was “interesting, garrulous, a sportsman in every sense of the word.’’

“Peter made an outstanding contribution to horse racing in New England over the years, but independent of that, he carried himself as a gentleman wherever he went,’’ Tuttle said.

The youngest of four children, Mr. Fuller was a son of Alvan T. Fuller, who served four years as governor in the late 1920s.

Though he grew up in a Back Bay mansion with servants, Mr. Fuller had no taste for snobbishness.

“He was never afraid to be himself,’’ said his daughter Michelle of Newton.

“Whenever we would take walks on the beach or anywhere else, and he saw people had littered, he would always pick it up,’’ she said. “He was so humble, he would pick up after other people because he hated not respecting the earth. Not many people know that the true measure of any person is how they are when no one’s looking.’’

Mr. Fuller graduated from Milton Academy and spent time at Dartmouth College for military officer training before his stint with the Marines.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1946 and, in 1951, married Joan Marcotte, whom he had met during summers on New Hampshire’s seacoast, where their families vacationed.

“If he wanted to do something, he did it, whether it was traditional or not,’’ his wife said. “He was very positive and engaged, and he didn’t like waiting or sitting around. He wanted to get things done, and his enthusiasm for what he liked was tremendous.’’

Among his enthusiasms was his family. He and his wife had seven daughters and a son. His daughter Abigail rode Mom’s Command, one of Mr. Fuller’s horses, to the 3-year-old filly Triple Crown in 1985.

“People talk about his principles and his loyalty, and that meant a lot to Dad,’’ she said. “He passed that on to all the kids. He wasn’t really worried much at all about what other people thought. He stood up for what he believed in.’’

In 1968, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Mr. Fuller gave his widow, Coretta Scott King, the purse Dancer’s Image won in a tune-up race before the Kentucky Derby.

During the swirl of events after officials took the Derby crown away from Dancer’s Image, there was much open speculation in the press that Mr. Fuller’s act of generosity to the King family had angered wealthy Southern families unaccustomed to a New Englander coming down and winning the Run for the Roses.

Mr. Fuller had also founded the Roxbury-based Positive Program for Boston, drawing recognition from the NAACP during the civil rights movement.

“Dr. King was a great American who died trying to make this country free for all people,’’ Mr. Fuller said in 1968.

In addition to his wife, Joan, and daughters Abigail and Michelle, Mr. Fuller leaves five other daughters, Miranda Bocko of Rye, N.H., Sandra Bocko of Stratham, N.H., Suzanne Fuller MacDonald of Rye, N.H., Jessica of Watertown, and Charlotte of Fairfax, Calif.; a son, Peter Jr. of Belmont; 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A service will be held at a later date.

Though Mr. Fuller set boxing aside after his successes in his 20s, he returned to the ring 30 years later when Muhammad Ali came to Boston to raise money for the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts through a series of short bouts in Hynes Auditorium.

“If you dreamed you hit me, even one time, you had better wake up and apologize,’’ Ali told Mr. Fuller to the delight of the roaring crowd in 1977.

Mr. Fuller wasn’t intimidated in the least.

“He was trying to get something going, and Ali said, ‘Take it easy old man,’ ’’ Abigail recalled. “And Dad was kind of mad. You know, ‘Come on, let’s mix it up.’ He was not a young guy at the time, but he was in good shape. It was Muhammad Ali, but he was not afraid.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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