How Secretariat and William Nack — the sportswriter who covered him — are forever linked

PARIS, Ky. — Rodeo, a bearded groom in a camouflage jacket, ambles between two rows of gray headstones in the horse cemetery at Claiborne Farm. Moss grows on a few; snow coats others. Buried beneath are the remains of 22 thoroughbreds that once answered a bugler’s call to starting gates. Pilgrims pay homage inside split-rail fences, and Rodeo performs a roll call of the equine athletes at rest. In one line, there is Reviewer, Buckpasser, Hoist the Flag, Riva Ridge, Nijinsky II and Mr. Prospector. Across the way are Bold Ruler, Court Martial and Double Jay. Swale, Pulpit and Round Table occupy a row of their own. Two Triple Crown winners are interred: Gallant Fox and Secretariat. Rodeo orates as he points to Secretariat’s marker.

“To me, this is the greatest racehorse to ever run on a racetrack,” he says. “He still holds all three of the Triple Crown records even today. When he passed away, they estimated his heart at 21 pounds. A typical thoroughbred heart is about seven or eight pounds.”

Secretariat’s grave notes the late horse’s lifespan. Born at 12:10 a.m. on March 30, 1970, a foal with a chestnut coat and three white feet, he won the Triple Crown as a three-year-old and retired soon after. He stood at stud, and grazed Claiborne’s pastures until he became afflicted with the hoof disease laminitis. His run ended when he was euthanized in a van on October 4, 1989 at the age of 19. He was embalmed and mourned. Rodeo recalls his reign, how he outdistanced Sham, one of the Hancock family’s other star racehorses, for the Crown. Sonny and Cher wanted Secretariat on their show. An offer was made to merchandize his manure.

“I took care of Sham until he died,” Rodeo says. “I like to say, ‘Any other year, Sham would have been a Triple Crown winner.’ They both set track records at the same time, him and Sham. Sham’s didn’t count because Secretariat was in front of him.”

The line always elicits laughs. Today is no different. Forty-five years after Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, he is unequaled in equine annals, but many who bore witness are now gone. Penny Chenery, his owner, died at 95 last year. Lucien Laurin, the trainer, was 88 when he died from complications following hip surgery in 2000. The groom, Ed Sweat, is deceased, too, having lost his battle to leukemia at 59 in 1998. He was almost penniless by then. The most recent connection to depart was writer William Nack, the horse’s chief chronicler, who died in April. Jockey Ron Turcotte carries the torch from a wheelchair since being tossed by a horse and paralyzed from the waist down in 1978. Rodeo reminds visitors that death comes to all. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, certainly not racehorses.

“Swale over here died at a very young age of three years old,” Rodeo says. “He won the Kentucky Derby, finished seventh in the Preakness, won the Belmont. Eight days after the Belmont, he had a heart attack and died at three years old. So you never know what will happen to a horse.”

Rodeo recounts the time when only the heart, hooves and head of a horse were put in the ground. The head signified the horse’s intelligence, the heart its spirit and the hooves its speed. The rest of the body was usually cremated. Rodeo shakes his head as snowflakes fall onto cold grass by the graves.

“They are buried full body now,” he says.

* * *

William Nack, a raconteur and reciter of poetry from Skokie, Ill., wished to cover the whole horse. He had grown up as a groom in stables around Chicago, attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1958 and took the reins from future film critic Roger Ebert as the editor of The Daily Illini while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. He ranked as an infantry lieutenant in the U.S. Army and wrote speeches for Gen. William C. Westmoreland in Saigon. When he returned stateside six weeks after the Tet Offensive in 1968, he took a job as a cityside scribe for Newsday on Long Island. He cut a wide swath with his reportage, plumbing for details in freshwater sources and political cesspools as an environmental writer. He painted portraits with a pointillist’s precision, and ascended to a tabletop during the Suffolk County office’s Christmas party when he let fly his flair for detailed recall. It was 1971. Nack was 30. On demand, he rattled off every winner of the Kentucky Derby. David Laventhol, the editor, approached Nack about switching to horses thereon.

“After covering politicians for the last four years, I’d love the chance to cover the whole horse,” Nack wrote in his formal application for the position.

Nack spun yarns that are spread across yellowed newspaper sheets now. He knew the hot walkers and horseplayers, the princes and profiteers. He was resourceful. Nack didn’t just shed light in racing’s dark corners; he brought his own bulbs to Louisville to better illuminate his dark room in the Galt House Hotel when he covered the Kentucky Derby late in his career. Colleagues and subjects recall a live wire, telling about his dancing with a lampshade on his head at a Sports Illustrated Christmas party inside a Tribeca loft. He authored two books and sired four children. It was Secretariat, the horse he first met at a Belmont Park barn in 1972 that stayed with him, though. Nack eyed the horse through binoculars from the fifth-floor press box and up close at Barn 5, Stall 7. Secretariat once snatched Nack’s notebook from his hands with his teeth. In his wallet, Nack kept a pigeon’s feather that had bothered Secretariat’s nose on the eve of his victory at the Preakness.

“Secretariat was like a fifth child to Bill,” says Carolyne Starek, his second wife.

Nack melded his newsroom know-how with his affection for Nabokov’s verses to become Secretariat’s Boswell. For 40 days leading up to the Kentucky Derby in 1973, Nack trekked the 20 miles from his house in Huntington to observe Secretariat’s morning workouts. He envisioned a magazine piece as a possible landing spot for his growing collection of granular details, and slept at the Newsday office the night prior to Stakes Day. He beat all hands to the barn that morning, and rested beneath a tree. Day broke with Nack recording rich descriptions, from birds “rioting in the trees” to the 1,100-pound horse’s breakfast — one quart of oats from a night watchman and a second quart at 10:30 a.m. Nack’s first shot at capturing the day appeared in the next morning’s paper, and the next came in a book. Nack revisited the subject once more in Sports Illustrated, in 1990, looking in the rearview at his relationship with the late horse. He remembered Secretariat as “a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.” He considered the passage of time and perspective gained.

The gift of reverie is a blessing divine, and it is conferred most abundantly on those who lie in hammocks or drive alone in cars. Or lean on hillside fences in Kentucky. The mind swims, binding itself to whatever flotsam comes along, to old driftwood faces and voices of the past, to places and scenes once visited, to things not seen or done but only dreamed.

Nack found rhythm in writing about hoof beats and heartbreak. He also stepped away from the track, at times, and once took his readers with him on an eight-day trip out west in 1977. Nack filed accounts from Super Bowl XI in Pasadena, then flew to Las Vegas, the city he called “The Land of the Big Pinkie Ring,” to report from the professional debut of boxer Leon Spinks. Finally, the national desk assigned him to cover Gary Gilmore’s execution by firing squad in Utah. The murderer’s last words were, “Let’s do it!” Nack referred to the swing as a “journalistic trifecta.”

Tireless in stitching together a tapestry of truths, he pressed for news with insistent reporting and drew stories from subjects with an uncommon bedside manner. From Mike Tyson to Rocky Marciano, pugilists inspired Nack to flex his muscular prose. In one profile about former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, Nack wrote, “Of all the names joined forever in the annals of boxing-from Dempsey-Tunney to Louis-Schmeling, from Zale-Graziano to Leonard-Hearns-none are more fiercely bound by a hyphen than Ali-Frazier.”

History tethered Secretariat to Nack, as well. Hollywood eventually inquired about giving Nack’s “Secretariat” a second wind as a Disney film. Diane Lane was cast as Penny (Chenery) Tweedy, the owner, and John Malkovich played the trainer Lucien Laurin. Nack was officially hired as a technical consultant and his book was credited as the film’s inspiration in 2010. His younger self was included in the script. Kevin Connolly, a Patchogue native and veteran of HBO’s “Entourage,” played Nack. It was a union of an old Newsday scribe and the brother of a former delivery boy.

“There was no dead air when Bill and I got to talking,” Connolly says.

Nack’s words remain stored on microfilm and in memory banks. He died from lung cancer on April 13, in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby this spring. On May 7, more than 350 mourners gathered at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. for a memorial service. At the repast, Starek, his widow, provided food that represented all three legs of the Triple Crown. There were ham biscuits for Kentucky, crabs for the Preakness and New York cheesecake for the Belmont. Back home, in their library, two of Secretariat’s horseshoes hang on a wall.

“Some people have pictures of their ancestors hanging above the fireplace,” Starek says. “We have a portrait of Secretariat.”

* * *

Finishing touches are being applied to Belmont Park. The 150th running of the Stakes is Saturday, and the annual racing crucible off the Cross Island Parkway features Justify, a three-year-old, in the latest effort to join the Triple Crown fraternity. Reminders of Secretariat are all around, from his bronzed statue in the paddock to the photograph of him carrying jockey Ron Turcotte to the finish line in 1973. Turcotte is forever looking over his left shoulder at the also-rans in his wake. It is featured on the wall next to the “PRESS ONLY” elevator on the ground floor.

No horse scribe knew Nack as long as Andy Beyer. The two met at the Kentucky Derby in 1972. They sat in the same Saratoga press box that August when they signed on as true believers in Secretariat’s potential. They stayed close, and Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” knew of their bond. She called Beyer the day after Nack died. They traded reminiscences, and Hillenbrand informed Beyer that two years earlier, when Gulch, the first horse that she loved, had died, Hillenbrand eulogized Gulch and Nack wrote an email to commiserate with her:

“I just read your lovely tribute in memory of Gulch and wanted to tell you how touched I was when I read it. I was a young person, a bit lost in the world, when I found the comely Swaps in 1955; he wrapped my heart around racing, my earliest harbor and refuge, my first love. On my way to Ft. Benning, Ga. and a two-year hitch in the Army, in the spring of 1966, I stopped with my new and pregnant bride at Darby Dan Lexington to visit him. It took us out of the way but it was a meander I felt I needed to make. There was not a soul around the farm when we pulled up. It was a lovely April day. Swaps saw us from a far end of his paddock and came over to inquire as to what we wanted or what we might have for him. My bride revealed a bag of jelly beans and began feeding them to him. He stretched his neck over the creosote fence and nuzzled her rounded belly. He was a very sweet-natured-stallion, much like Quiet American. I recall looking back at him as we left that day and seeing him in that field, his golden coat aglow in the Kentucky sun. This memory hangs in a gallery of colored prints that stretches far back in a corridor of years. It was the last time I saw him. I used to visit his grave at Spendthrift when I was in Lexington and clean the broken sticks and leaves from it with the palm of my hand. It was my way of saying thank you, I guess, for making me so happy as a boy.”

In an email to the News, Hillenbrand, who sent a necklace with two charms — “Bill” and “Carolyne” — to Nack’s widow this week, says, “That Bill Nack encountered Secretariat was so beautiful an intersection that it seems almost an act of grace.”

“He leaves behind epics of storytelling, and in that epic, history itself,” she continues. “In his words, he granted his subjects immortality. How happy he must have been to know that in his too-brief time in this world, he gave such a gift to the horses who brought him such joy, those horses he called ‘those beasts we love.’”

Nack’s favorite ending to recite was from “The Great Gatsby.” He entertained about Daisy’s dock at bars and in classrooms, during golf outings and at house parties in Saratoga, both in English and Spanish. Saratoga was his favorite stage to perform on each August. One of his final requests was to be brought back upstate to Saratoga, to the track known as “The Graveyard of Favorites.” Nack always liked to echo the late columnist Red Smith’s directions from New York City to Saratoga:

You drive north on the Thruway for about 175 miles, turn off at Exit 14, take Union Avenue heading west — and go back about 100 years

Nack was 77. There will be no headstone to mind, no leaves to brush off. He was cremated, and asked his widow to spread some ashes around the Saratoga track in the old town that he once described as “a watering hole and gambling hell.”

“It was like a second home,” Starek says.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°