Shortly after I became Blood-Horse magazine's editor in 1992, I was introduced to Bill Nack at a press party on the Triple Crown trail. He sized me up, nodding a few times, didn't seem all that impressed or interested.
Nack was the preeminent horse racing writer – of that or any era. His work for Sports Illustrated set the standard, one I doubt will ever be matched. Before he joined SI, Nack wrote for Newsday, a tabloid newspaper on Long Island in New York, and he was a free-lance contributor to the Thoroughbred Record, a competitor to Blood-Horse.
“I could never write for the Blood-Horse,” he said with the look of someone who'd just smelled a rotten egg. “They call horses 'which.'”
He was referring to a longstanding policy of Blood-Horse magazine to use the pronoun “which” instead of “who” when writing about a horse; as in “Secretariat, which won the Triple Crown in 1973…” Technically, it might have been proper English, but I thought it depersonalized the horses and sounded awkward.
“I'm changing that,” I told him.
The corners of his mouth curled upward and Nack nodded approvingly. “Good,” is all he said.
It's not that Nack, who died on April 13 at the age of 77, was a man of few words. His Sports Illustrated pieces ran 5,000 words or longer and always left the reader wanting more. His phrasings and rhythm and ability to paint a picture with words were unique. Nack had a gift, but he was a perfectionist who labored over every word.
More than anything else, he was a storyteller, in print and in person.
A couple of years later, the late Don Little invited me to Middleburg, Va., to speak at a gathering of investors in his Centennial Farms partnerships. They'd travelled to Virginia to look at the latest group of 2-year-olds that were about to leave for the racetrack.
“We'd like you to say a few words to them,” Little said. “Just tell them a couple of stories.”
When I got to the farm, Nack was there, too.
“What are you doing here?” I asked with more than a little trepidation.
“Oh, uh, Don Little asked if I tell a few stories about racing,” he said.
I was buried. Telling stories alongside Bill Nack was like racing against Eclipse: Nack first, the rest nowhere.
After a brief introduction from Little, Nack talked of his childhood encounters with Swaps and Round Table in Chicago, and told the amusing tale of how, when he was covering politics and the environment for Newsday, he got his first job writing about horse racing (he stood on a desk at the company Christmas party and recited every winner of the Kentucky Derby, which impressed the sports editor to no end).
When Nack spoke of Secretariat – who was foaled at The Meadow Stud in Caroline County, Va., an hour and a half south of Middleburg – the Centennial partners hung on every word. Even the birds in the trees stopped chirping and started listening. There was no one walking the earth who knew more about Big Red of Meadow Stable (which happened to be the title of Nack's first book).
I don't even remember what I talked about when Don Little introduced me to the crowd. I'm sure they don't, either.
Bill Nack was a tough act to follow.
At another Triple Crown party, Nack was entertaining a small group of people with a story about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Well known in boxing circles for his magazine profiles on the likes of Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Nack talked about Ali's training regimen, Foreman's brooding, the sights, sounds and smells of what was then the country of Zaire, in western Africa. He made you feel like you were there.
When he finished and the crowd drifted away, I went up to Nack and said, “I didn't know you went to Zaire for that fight.”
“I didn't,” he said, with a devilish smile.
(Nack repeated much of that story in a beautiful tribute to Ali when the champ died in June 2016. Read it here at ESPN.com. A collection of Nack's best writing, “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life,” is must reading. You can get it here.)
No one I've known worked harder or was more singularly focused than Nack at getting the details that put his readers in the shedrows of leading stables, on the clocker's stand or in the winner's circle of major races. When tragedy struck – the champion filly Ruffian in her 1975 match race or 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in the Preakness at Pimlico – Nack was dogged in pursuit of the smallest details. When Ruffian broke down on the Belmont Park backstretch in her race against Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, Nack, in an instant, raced across the track and through the expansive infield to get to the stricken filly.
In his book on Ruffian, he wrote: “I took off through the clubhouse and raced down the stairs and swept blindly past a guard and onto the crown of the track, where I heard a jockey screaming at me just before his muscular bay colt thundered past, nearly bowling me over as he came home alone in triumph past the finish line.”
I saw the same thing happen in the 1999 Belmont Stakes, when Chris Antley pulled up an injured Charismatic, the Derby and Preakness winner, just past the wire after finishing third to Lemon Drop Kid and 54-1 longshot Vision and Verse.
I had watched the race in the box seats with Bill Mott, Vision and Verse's trainer, and stood frozen in an aisle as Antley quickly jumped off Charismatic and cradled the big chestnut's injured front limb in his arms. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a blur coming toward me at breakneck speed. It was Nack, chugging along in a mad dash down the aisle, notepad tucked under his arm. He would have run me over had I not jumped back into the box. He flew down the steps and ran onto the track toward Charismatic. When I asked him about it later he didn't remember seeing me.
He just had a way of being in the right place at the right time. I'll never forget, watching a television replay of the epic Breeders' Cup Classic between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989 at Gulfstream Park. NBC had one camera focused on Arthur Hancock III, who sunk to his knees in prayerful relief as Sunday Silence eked out the win. A split screen image showed Easy Goer's stoic owner and breeder, the late Ogden Phipps, watching his colt's rally fall just short at the wire. Nack somehow was in both camera shots. Just amazing.
After leaving Sports Illustrated in 2001, Nack would write an occasional story for the Blood-Horse, where he could refer to horses as “who.” We became golfing buddies and confidants and he helped me get through some difficult times. We shared a love of the Chicago Cubs and a concern for the direction that horse racing had taken since the 1980s, becoming more of a business than a sport. His 1993 Sports Illustrated article, “The Breaking Point,” examined a parallel rise of fatal injuries in racing and the use of corticosteroids and other drugs, both legal and illegal. Some in racing turned against Nack as a result of the piece, but it was written because he loved the game so much.
In his 60s, Nack married Carolyne Starek, a vivacious educator and school administrator in Montgomery County, Md., just north of Washington, D.C. After she retired, the couple golfed, traveled the world and occasionally took in a horse race. They were a perfect match. He was as happy as I'd ever seen him.
And then came cancer. He didn't want anyone outside of a small circle to know about it and was optimistic that he could beat the dreaded disease. And he did for a while, living the fullest life imaginable.
Nack died peacefully at his home on the evening of April 13, surrounded by Carolyne and his four children.
His last great written gift to us might just be in a most unusual place, on the reader-generated website Wikipedia. A notice at the top of the entry for William Nack reads: “This article's tone or style may not reflect the encyclopedic tone used on Wikipedia.”
The biographical page provides a colorful description of Bill Nack's enormous life, taking a reader from his childhood in Skokie, Ill. (where he and his sister, Dee, were given “a parade horse with a masking black head atop a pure white body”) to the University of Illinois (Nack would “descend to the underground stacks of the library to read obscure 19th-century accounts of horse breeds”) and then to an air base outside of Saigon, where Nack served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War (“he often drowned out the cacophony of exploding mortars and machine gun fire with tapes his mother sent him of the calls of important races.”).
And then on to Newsday, Sports Illustrated, best-selling books, movies and more awards and accolades than anyone who's ever written about horse racing – all told in a unique and unforgettable voice.
One of Wikipedia's rules is that you are not supposed to write about yourself. Bill Nack didn't always follow the rules.
Roger Ebert (reprint of an article by the late film critic and lifelong friend)
Click here to listen to Bill Nack tell stories from his life on the Paulick Report's Around the Track podcast from 2017.
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