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240491691365cefc8fdf OAndy Ihnatko on flickr

Bill Nack would be loving this latest quest for thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown.

He’d surely be all over the saga of Justify, the gritty, undefeated chestnut colt trying to become only the third horse since 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. In a perfect world, he’d be spending the morning of June 9 on the backstretch at Belmont Park on Long Island, not far from the stall where Justify will await the bugler’s call to the post and a chance to make racing history.

Sadly though, Nack can only be there in spirit. Three weeks before the first Saturday in May—a date all racing fans know signals the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs—Nack died on April 13 at his D.C. home at the age of 77 after a long battle with lung cancer. 

Many considered him the finest racing writer of his and any other generation, not to mention a brilliant storyteller and dogged reporter on a wide variety of other subjects over the course of a productive and distinguished career that stretched more than five decades.

He grew up with horses in Skokie, Illinois, where he and his sister Dorothy lived near a boarding stable and were constantly riding horses, brushing horses, mucking out horse stalls, filling horses’ feed and water buckets. In 1959, Bill worked as a groom at nearby Arlington Park, back then one of the nation’s premier race tracks, and he never did get over his early equine crush.

After editing the University of Illinois student paper, followed by a stint in the Army during Vietnam, where he wrote news releases and speeches for Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces from 1964 to ’68, Nack got his first job at Newsday on Long Island.

He was covering news in the Suffolk County bureau back then, but his performance at a raucous office Christmas party may have changed the course of his life. And don’t you know, horses had everything to do with it. That night, he stood up on a table and proceeded to recite the name of every single Kentucky Derby winner going back to the very first—Aristides—in 1875.

Newsday’s editor at the time, David Laventhol, was partial to the ponies himself and was duly impressed. Before long, Nack’s beat changed from courts and cops to Belmont and Aqueduct, New York’s top race tracks. He spent Augusts in Saratoga to cover the late summer races at the historic “Spa” as well.

His timing was perfect. Nack picked up the beat less than two years before one of racing’s all-time greats came out on the track. That would be Secretariat, and Nack meticulously chronicled Big Red’s Triple Crown campaign for Newsday, learning the patterns and quirks of a horse that captivated the American public as much as he had captivated Nack.

On the day of the Belmont Stakes, Nack arrived at the track at 2 a.m. and camped out on a barn bed of hay not far from Secretariat’s stall. Horse and scribe were both awakened by the crow of a rooster at 6 a.m., and a dozen hours later, Secretariat won the race in record time.

“It ended with a single stentorian burst of applause, with screams so sudden they seemed startled out of people,” Nack wrote in Newsday. “And they began when (jockey) Ron Turcotte pushed Secretariat to ever-widening leads of 28, 29, 30 and finally 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes.”

Nack went on to write a best-selling book about Secretariat, which eventually was turned into a popular Disney movie in 2010.

After a decade at Newsday, he left for Sports Illustrated, where he expanded his repertoire to include stories on a wide variety of subjects, from chess master Bobby Fischer to boxer Rocky Marciano to auto racing driver A.J. Foyt to tennis star Steffi Graf to football player Bob Kalsu, the only professional athlete to die in the Vietnam War.

Secretariat came back into Nack’s life in 1989, when he visited the horse at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, only to learn that he would soon be euthanized because of a foot disease that caused too much pain for him to go on. He heard about Secretariat’s death in his hotel room that night.

“The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine’s Day of 1982, when my wife called to tell me my father had died,” Nack wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Now there I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.”

Oh yes, Bill Nack would be loving Justify’s Triple Crown quest at Belmont Park on June 9, exactly 45 years after Secretariat pulled it off on that very same date in 1973. Somehow, some way, somewhere, you’d also like to think he’ll be watching.

Photo by Andy Ihnatko on flickr

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