The best way to describe the late Bill Nack’s passion for horse racing and his beloved Secretariat is to allow the master storyteller to do it himself.
“Horses have a way of getting inside of you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog,” he wrote.
Those words appeared in “Pure Heart,” a reflection on Secretariat’s extraordinary life that Nack wrote for Sports Illustrated. He became so close to “Big Red” and those who managed him that he was aboard the plane that carried the magnificent Triple Crown champion to Lexington, Ky., and his new home at Clairborne Farm.
Nack was there to hear a voice from the control tower at Blue Grass Airport tell the pilot, Dan Neff: “There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat than there was to greet the governor.” Here was there to here Neff reply, “Well, he’s won more races than the governor.”
It can be argued that, in the history of sports writing, no one ever got closer to his subjects than Nack, who died of cancer on April 13, 2018. He was 77.
Mark Beech, a former researcher and writer at Sports Illustrated, said simply of his former mentor: “He was wherever he needed to be.”
In doing so, Nack provided his readers with access to people and places they would not ordinarily have access to. The cockpit exchange during Secretariat’s flight home offers a perfect example of that.
Nack graduated from the University of Illinois in 1966 and served in the Army. He was almost fanatical in his attention to detail. He understood how essential that was to telling a story as well as it could be told. And he loved to share everything he had seen and heard, especially when it came to racing.
“The thing we know about horse racing is it’s full of characters, it’s full of drama and controversy,” said Tim Layden, a former Sports Illustrated writer now with NBC Sports. “It checks off a lot of the right boxes for someone who likes to be a storyteller.”
Whether he was dining at a fine restaurant, hosting or attending a party, or at his laptop, Nack relished the opportunity to share with others all that he had seen and done.
“He loved to tell stories on paper, but he also loved to tell stories in person,” Layden said. “If you got to spend time with Bill, he was almost better at telling stories in person than he was in writing them. I don’t say that to belittle his writing in any way, because he was one of the best writers of any kind ever.”
Just as Nack yearned to report every imaginable detail about a subject, he devoted the same attention to every word of an article. When Beech was done sharing his research the night of the Kentucky Derby, he would experience some guilt about parting with him.
“I can remember feeling bad because I was going to get to go to sleep,” he said, “and Bill was not.”
Nack would fight through fatigue to make certain that every aspect of a story was told as richly as possible. The great New York Times sports columnist Red Smith used to say that writing involved opening a vein and letting it bleed. Nack understood that as well as anyone.
“He spent a lot of time trying to find the right word in the right place. A lot of people don’t do that. Even a lot of people who can don’t do it,” Layden said. “There is a tremendous temptation to get to the next sentence or get to the next paragraph. When you have to stop there to think of just the right verb or just the right adjective, it takes longer.”
Nack invested the time without fail. Not surprisingly, the accolades followed. He won seven media Eclipse Awards. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor in 2010. He received the PEN/ESPN America Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing in 2017, the culmination of a career to rival Secretariat’s.
- Was a show horse rider as a teenager
- Learned racing from the ground up as a groom at Arlington Park
- Wrote “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” which helped to inspire the 2010 Disney movie “Secretariat”
- Also wrote “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and The Sporting Life,” and “Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance”
- Would regale friends at parties by reciting the final page of “The Great Gatsby” – in English and Spanish!