By Ray Paulick
William Nack launched his award-winning turf writing career at Newsday on Long Island, N.Y., the same year Secretariat first stepped onto the racetrack–in 1972–but he'd been a fan of the sport since his childhood and worked as a groom at Arlington Park during high school.
After getting reassigned from politics to horse racing at Newsday, Nack began to chronicle the exploits of the eventual Triple Crown champion and wrote the book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” which many consider the best horse racing biography ever written. The book has been repackaged to coincide with the release of the Disney movie “Secretariat,” and a new generation of readers have helped put it on best seller lists at the Washington Post (sixth on the paperback non-fiction), New York Times (11th, paperback non-fiction), and Amazon (No. 274 of all books currently in print).
Nack moved on to Sports Illustrated magazine in 1978 where horse racing was his principal beat. While there, he won six Eclipse Awards for writing about racing and added a seventh in a piece published in Gentleman's Quarterly. But Nack has covered many other sports, including boxing, football, baseball, and even world championship chess. The book “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money and the Sporting Life,” is an outstanding collection of articles he's written during his long and productive career. (His interests go beyond sports, as this video of Nack reciting the last page of the novel “The Great Gatsby” on film critic Roger Ebert's blog indicates.)
Nack spoke with the Paulick Report about Secretariat, the horse and the movie.
What was your involvement in the Secretariat movie?
Five years ago, one of Disney's most successful screenwriters, Mike Rich–who wrote “Finding Forrester,” “The Rookie” and “Miracle,”–called one day out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in turning a Sports Illustrated story I had written about Secretariat, called “Pure Heart,” into a movie. I had written Pure Heart as a personal narrative that described my involvement with the life of Secretariat from the day that exercise rider Jim Gaffney first introduced me to the colt, in June of 1972, when he was an unraced 2-year-old, to the day the horse died in 1989, when I happened to be at Claiborne doing a story on the upcoming battle between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Disney's legendary studio head, Dick Cook, liked the idea of doing a movie about Secretariat–he was a fan of the horse–but I was later told that Dick did not want another “passages” movie with a man at the center of it. Instead, he wanted a female as the main character in the story, and it was decided to pursue the project with the colt's manager, Penny Chenery Tweedy, as the lead character. Frankly, I was somewhat relieved at this decision. I was not sure whether I wanted my life turned into a major motion picture, and I thought Cook made a wise and sensible decision. What Penny went through, in leaving home for extended periods to take charge of her dying father's farm and racing stable, was far more interesting than my tale as a young turf writer–and former hot walker and groom–finding and tracking the Horse of the Century through his two-year career on the racetrack.
I would still be involved in the making of the film. Disney acquired the rights to my book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” made me the racing consultant on the film, and wrote me–and Andrew Beyer–as characters into the script. In fact, as the film accurately depicts, Beyer and I hung out a lot together in those days, doing the dawn patrol in the mornings and chewing the fat in the press box of racing afternoons. I also ended up doing a cameo performance as “Reporter #3” in the film, but my most important job was reading and helping to authenticate the script–for instance, in making sure that racing terms were used properly–and answering any and all questions about the racetrack, the sport generally, and Secretariat's life.
Secretariat remains one of the most recognizable names in sports history. Why do you think it took so long for someone to green light a movie on his life and the people around him?
I had given up hope years ago that Secretariat's story would ever find its way to the silver screen, and I had come to learn that one of the problems with his story was this: he did not come from the rags-to-riches background of the somewhat off-bred, crooked-legged Seabiscuit, who had a jockey who was half blind and trainer who was a weird loner who wandered into town from some dust storm in the desert. Secretariat sprang from racing royalty, his sire, Bold Ruler, being one of the fastest Thoroughbreds in the last half of the 20th Century and a successful progenitor, and his dam an established Blue Hen who had already produced Sir Gaylord, First Family and Syrian Sea. There was nothing crooked about him. In fact, he was a model physical specimen who, according to the noted Racing Form columnist, Charles Hatton, came as close to physical perfection as he had ever seen in 60 years of studying the breed.
Thank goodness Secretariat lost the Wood Memorial. His loss in the Wood, which I regarded as a disaster at the time, gave my biography a quality of tension that it needed. Had he come off his Horse of the Year season as a 2-year-old and raced through the Triple Crown undefeated that spring, it would have been tough writing the story with no tension in it. The Wood plunged Penny and his trainer, Lucien Laurin, not to mention his jockey, Ron Turcotte, and all his new syndicate owners, into a panic, giving the book an edge that it needed to make it a good story.
The film also focused on Secretariat's loss in the Wood, and it gave the movie a necessary source of tension and drama on the eve of the Triple Crown.
Back to the question, Secretariat's lack of a rags to riches appeal–unlike Seabiscuit, he really did what he was bred to do–made it an unattractive story for Hollywood. That said, however, I do not think it was mere coincidence that the Secretariat story suddenly got legs when it did, in 2005—that is, during another national downturn and funk, as it originally did during Watergate and the Vietnam War, a time in which we were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and the entire financial system in this country teetered on the verge of collapse, with a ruinous near-depression plunging the nation into a state of despair.
Just as Secretariat originally brought a sense of relief from the horrors of Watergate and the Vietnam War, with his picture on the front of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week, so he brings relief again today. The idea for this movie really took off as the country began wallowing in the mire of lying politicians, economic disasters, and massive deficits abetted by unfunded wars. Secretariat was a feel-good horse and now he's the center of a feel-good movie, a pleasant equine diversion, once again, from all our human woes.
What did you think of the final product?
I thought the movie was very engaging and entertaining, and thought that the acting was first rate overall. Diane Lane is a lovely human being, as warm on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside, and I thought she did a great job playing Penny. She is a first-rate actress, and I expect her to get nominated for a best actress Oscar. John Malkovich is one of the world's foremost actors, a theatrical genius really, and I thought he brought a lot of creative imagination to his role as Lucien Laurin. In John's hands, as the plot matured, Lucien gradually evolved from a kind of daffy cartoon character, hitting golf balls on a driving range, to the more somber, anxious, reflective Laurin that I knew when he was Secretariat's trainer.
I have seen the movie five times, and at each showing I have come to appreciate the stellar acting by the other main figures in the film–by Nelsan Ellis as Ed Sweat, by Margo Martindale as Miss Ham, by James Cromwell as Ogden Phipps, and by Fred Thompson as Bull Hancock. Also thought that Eric Lange, as Andy Beyer, and Kevin Connolly, as me, did excellent jobs.
There were a number of dramatizations in the film, but none of them bothered me much at all. The arc of the film was true to the arc of my book. In early 1973, when Chris Chenery died, the sale of Secretariat for $6 million to a breeding syndicate saved the farm and all the other horses on the farm and in the racing stable. To me, that is not an arguable point. It is the central point of the movie and it is true.
I thought the director, Randall Wallace, did an exceptional job in building and resolving the tensions of the film–in portraying the family agonies brought on by Penny's desire to divide her time between her husband and kids in Denver and the racing stable in New York and in portraying the panic and confusion brought on by the colt's stunning defeat in the Wood.
Also, unlike the races in the Seabiscuit film, Secretariat's races were re-created accurately. Cinematographer Dean Semler, who won an Oscar for “Dances With Wolves,” should be nominated for another Oscar here.
How can you not like a film at which audiences stand up and cheer at various points in the movie, and again at the end? Secretariat is an emotionally engaging and well-told tale involving the greatest horse of modern times. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, this is a “great movie about greatness.”
Anything you wish they'd done differently?
Minor stuff. For instance, there's a Nelsan Ellis line in there I wish would vanish. After they discovered the abscess on Secretariat's lip that had pained the colt in the Wood, Nelsan, as Ed Sweat, says that they didn't know it was there because the colt “only softens his mouth for Penny.”
At the Lexington premiere, I heard people laughing out loud at that line. And justifiably. I winced when I first heard it and winced again in Lexington.
But, as I said, this was minor stuff. This movie works, and it will draw you into it.
Does it bother you that some critics–especially turf writers–seem to pick it apart over things that are insignificant to a movie producer or director?
Yes, it has been a minor annoyance, especially when it has come from turf writers, many of whom have been my friends for years.
I have read some of the things they have written, and on two or three occasions, I was sorely tempted to respond to this or that lunacy, but then thought better of it and held my tongue.
What I keep seeing, in this petty sniping, is the incessant complaint that this or that scene did not really happen, that this or that fact was omitted, or that there were exaggerations here and there.
Many years ago, back when the movie “Hurricane” came out, I called my old U of Illinois friend Roger Ebert–the most respected film critic in America–and complained that the film included scenes that really did not happen and asserted as fact some things that were not true. I had written a long story on Hurricane Carter for Sports Illustrated, and as a journalist, I did not like the way that the filmmaker had made light of the facts.
Roger cut me off, and rather testily. “Bill, this is a movie! It is not a documentary. Don't you get that? There's a difference. You do not go to movies for history. You go to documentaries for history. You go to movies to get emotionally engaged. You go to the movies to be moved, to have your humanity touched, to laugh, or cry, or both. You go to be entertained.”
I never forgot that.
Many people were offended that Riva Ridge was left out of the Secretariat movie altogether, and one daffy commentator even suggested, falsely, that it was Riva Ridge who saved the farm and all the herbivores on it. Sorry. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Riva Ridge may have kept the farm solvent for a while, but by the time Chris Chenery died, in January of 1973, and the estate had to raise those death taxes, there was only one entity who was worth enough to save them all: Secretariat.
In fact, Riva Ridge had lost his last five races as a 3-year-old in 1972, and he had lost his last three starts that year–the Woodward, the Jockey Gold Cup and the D.C. International at Laurel–by a combined total of 62 1/4 lengths.
His value had plummeted to under $2 million, and so by the time Chris Chenery died, in January of 1973, Riva needed saving as much as all the broodmares, yearlings and weanlings on the farm.
Secretariat saved Riva Ridge for the Meadow Stud. By selling the red horse, they were able to keep Riva Ridge and give him a chance to come back as a 4-year-old and regain the value he had lost the year before. Riva came back brilliantly in 1973, the year he was the handicap champion of the year, and was eventually sold for more than $5 million.
If Secretariat was born in 2008 instead of 1970, how would his racing career differ?
This means that he would be racing as a 3-year-old in 2011, which means he would be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, in 1978, the first in 33 years. The circumstances of early 1973, when owner/breeder Chris Chenery died, forced his sale to raise those onerous death duties, and I am assuming here that there would be no need to retire him to stud at the end of his 3-year-old year in 2011.
Which means he would win two consecutive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic, at least one Dubai World Cup and at least one Arc de Triomphe, and would retire with earnings of $15 million or more.
At four, he would run a mile in 1:31, a mile and a quarter in 1:56 3/5, and a mile and a half in 2:21.
He would be on the cover of Elle. Statues on the Champs-Elysees. He would be a centerfold in Maxim. He would have a clothing line named after him, Le Secretere, and be brought on stage for the Oprah Winfrey Show. He would be all over the Internet, with many appearances on YouTube, and have his own Facebook and Twitter page.
What can this movie do for the sport of racing?
This movie can have only a positive effect on the sport, carrying with it the power to interest a whole new and younger generation of fans to the game. This movie's subtext is all about female empowerment, and I can see mothers taking their daughters to it in response to that obvious subtext, and I can see dads and sons tailing along because they have also heard it is a movie with some striking racing scenes and high drama on the racetrack.
All of this can only bode well for the sport.
Have racing organizations done enough to capitalize on the movie?
I have no idea what racing organizations have done in response to this movie, but I hope they do not let the moment pass without promoting it and thereby enhancing the image of the sport. Knowing how this game is organized, however, I am sure the Grand Poohbahs will find a way to miss the mark and screw it up.
What projects are you working on now that this movie is behind you?
I want to write a book about the Battle of Antietam, in the Civil War, and have been at various libraries–at the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland, the Library of Congress in D.C., and the Harvard Library in Massachusetts–researching the subject and, in particular, learning about one civilian who was involved in the battle.
I will get back to it as the Secretariat phenomenon dies down.
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