Renowned sportswriter Bill Nack, dead at 77, wrote classic book on Secretariat
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Bill Nack, whose book-turned-film on 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat was a classic of turf insight and eloquence, died of cancer Friday at his home in Washington, D.C., according to his wife Carolyne.
Mr. Nack, who grew up in Skokie and helped plan his Niles East High School class’ 50th reunion, was 77.
He most famously wrote for Sports Illustrated, where his 1990 story on Secretariat, titled “Pure Heart,” is considered a marvel of storytelling. He later freelanced for outlets including ESPN and GQ.
He credited his sportswriting career to a Christmas party in 1971, when he was a news reporter at Newsday.
With everyone “pretty well into the eggnog,” he recalled jumping onto a table and reciting this equine incantation: “Aristedes, Vagrant, Baden-Baden, Day Star, Lord Murphy, Fonso, Hindoo, Apollo, Leonatus, Buchanan, Joe Cotton, Ben Ali, Montrose, Macbeth, Spokane, Riley, Kingman, Azra, Lookout, Chant, Halma, Ben Brush, Typhoon the Second, Plaudit, Manuel and Lieutenant Gibson” — the winners of the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 1900. He continued through 1971 winner Canonero II.
He’d been bored with covering Long Island sewer problems and other municipal issues. Impressed by his recitation, Newsday editor David Laventhol offered him a job covering the track.
His best-selling biography of Secretariat was released in 1975 as “Big Red of Meadow Stable” and rereleased in 2002 as “Secretariat: the Making of a Champion.”
It was the basis for the 2010 “Secretariat” movie starring John Malkovich and Diane Lane. Mr. Nack had a role, too: He played “Reporter #3.”
As a kid, he loved visiting the track with his electrical-engineer father Gordon, recalling: “Most boys bonded with their dad over baseball games. I did not do that. I did . . . at the racetrack.”
His mother Betty had been a ballet dancer, Carolyne Nack said.
He was born in Chicago and moved to Skokie around fourth grade, living on Keeler Avenue, attending Cleveland elementary school and reading books by journalist H.L. Mencken before starting high school, according to his friend Dave Anderson.
At Niles East, he played basketball and set a never-broken cross-country record.
In a yet-unpublished memoir his wife shared, he described meeting 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, who “dropped his head over the railing at old Washington Park and breathed on the back of my hand — thus infusing me with a love of that game and those horses that would own me forever.”
He wrote that a 1958 trip to the Derby “was the single most colossal experience of my youth, the seminal event in defining my journalistic life.”
According to Anderson, he mucked out stalls as a kid at the old Holdorf Stable at Golf Road and Harms Road in Morton Grove. Recalling that, Mr. Nack wrote in his book on Secretariat about taking “a little black bullet of a thoroughbred filly” for a thrilling gallop along Golf Road. “No car ever took me on a ride like that. And no roller coaster, either.”
He also worked as a racetrack groom and hot-walker at Arlington Park, according to his wife.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was sports editor of The Daily Illini when future Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert was editor. Later, Mr. Nack was editor.
In 2008, Ebert wrote about Mr. Nack seeing Secretariat shortly before the racing legend’s death: “ ‘After the autopsy, the vet said he had a heart twice as big as the average horse,’ Bill told me. ‘There was nothing wrong with it. It was simply a great heart.’
“Bill was the writer who exposed the scandal of how owners and vets conspired to use cortisone in order to race horses who were not ready to be raced,” Ebert wrote. “No one at the tracks would give him the time of day for a couple of years.”
Mr. Nack served in Vietnam under Gen. William C. Westmoreland. According to promotional material for his books, “Nack tuned out the midnight bomb blasts by listening to racetrack broadcasts from Santa Anita.”
He wrote another book about a famed horse, “Ruffian: a Racetrack Romance,” which became a 2007 TV movie, and other books including a compilation titled “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life.”
On the website Secretariat.com, the great horse’s owners and jockey, Ron Turcotte, said: “Bill was a master storyteller whose incredible talent was only matched by his vast knowledge in a diverse spectrum of interests including film and entertainment, poetry and literature, history, politics and of course his favorite subject — horse racing.”
Mr. Nack is also survived by daughters Rachel, Emily and Amy, his son William, a sister, Dorothy Cosnigny, and six grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending. “We certainly hope to give copies of ‘Pure Heart’ out to the people who come,” his wife said.