Bill Nack was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated for 23 years. Before that, he wrote for New York Newsday for eleven years. He is the winner of seven Eclipse Awards for turf writing, horse racing’s Academy Awards; he also received the A.J. Liebling Award for excellence in boxing coverage. Nack is currently a freelancer for ESPN, S.I., GQ, and Time Magazine. He has served as an editor, a historian, and a consultant for motion pictures. Nack is the author of three books: Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, My Turf, and Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance.
And he is an all-around nice guy.
What struck me most about Bill Nack, aside from his ability to conjure up countless pieces of horse racing trivia without missing a beat, is that despite his list of boast-worthy successes, the man is an extremely easy-going and genuine guy. Whether it’s because we share the same affinity for the Sport of Kings, or he simply felt sorry for me during our introduction, when my voice amounted to nothing more than a breathless wheeze, Nack gave me the honor of interviewing him after the Preakness Stakes. What resulted was more of a conversation about the industry’s hot-button issues, the Triple Crown, and his work on the page and in film.
Though he claims to be retired, the Skokie native and University of Illinois alumnus is keeping plenty busy with freelance writing, while penning his own books and finding time to illuminate the unawares on one of his favorite subjects: horse racing. Nack has been called a historian on the sport, having contributed to the Daily Racing Form’s Top 100 Greatest Thoroughbreds of All Time among several other major publications. His book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion has been heralded as the definitive source on the horse, which is why Walt Disney Studios sought him out as a consultant for their new movie about Big Red.
If Disney is basing their film on Nack’s Secretariat bible, I know America’s favorite horse is in good hands. His latest book about the brilliant, yet tragically fated filly, Ruffian, was made into a film two years ago. Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance was a small screen film that premiered smack-dab in the middle of two of racing’s most public breakdowns in three years, Barbaro in 2006 and Eight Belles in 2008. It could not have come at a more appropriate time.
With the resurgence of breakdown issues holding the sport by the throat, Nack has brought to light discussions many people in the industry are afraid to face. The subject was unavoidable in our conversation. “It’s right there in the breeding,” he tells me. The turf writer has long contested that horses aren’t what they used to be, primarily because breeders are fine-tuning horses for speed, not durability. In Ruffian, Nack mentions going to the racetrack for twenty years before he sees his first breakdown.
Between less than one year of visiting the tracks on a sporadic basis, from 2007–2008, I have personally witnessed three. Something has obviously changed over the years, a problem, the turf writer says, that has been going to seed since the 1950’s.
Nack’s latest article for ESPN.com has been garnering quite the stir among racing enthusiasts and horsemen alike. Entitled “Eight Belles’ breakdown: a predictable tragedy,” the story relays how bloodlines, not track or jockey or trainer, was the root of the cause that led to the tragic breakdown of the second-place finisher in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Obviously pleased with the publicity the article has received thus far, Nack confided that not only was it the highest-forwarded article on ESPN.com the week it was published, but the article also stirred the reactions of the people with the biggest role in the tragedy: Eight Belles’s breeders.
The article explains how thoroughbred breeding consultant and analyst Ellen Parker believed the gray filly’s pedigree had doomed her from the moment she was conceived. Nack went on to tell me that when Eight Belles’ breeders caught wind of the story, they retaliated by calling up Parker and telling her how offended they were by what she had said about Eight Belles’ breeding.
Changing the rules of horse racing is one thing, but changing the industry’s breeding habits is a whole ‘nother enchilada.
The seasoned turf writer will tell you that horsemen have been throwing solutions at the breakdown problem for a quick-fix. They’ve tried making the tracks softer, cutting the drugs, racing less often; addressing these factors is at least a step in the right direction. “First of all, they need to ban steroids,” Nack says frankly.
And replacing the dirt tracks? “I just hate those synthetic surfaces,” Nack says. He explains to me that not only have the synthetic surfaces not proven to be safer, they destroy any ability to handicap a race, screw up speed figures and don’t solve problems. Even top trainers like Nick Zito and Bob Baffert are throwing their hands up at synthetics.
While talking to Nack, it quickly became obvious he believed the road to safety in the industry of thoroughbred racing starts in the breeding shed. And though fixing the damage that has already been done will be a long journey, he doesn’t think all is lost. Nack’s advice to breeders: “It’s not too late.” According to him, dipping from less desirable gene pools may be the only way to strengthen the stock of our coveted breed, and if speed must be sacrificed, then so be it.
When I asked him if such unspoiled lines really existed, Nack suggested the American bloodstock would have to find stability from overseas horses; particularly, he says, “In Germany, France, or Japan.”
When it’s all said and done, a lesson can be learned in following the career of the famous turf writer. Love not the horses for being machines; love the horses for being horses. Nack’s adoration of Ruffian is evident in his memoir about the filly. Before the ill-fated match race that would claim her life, the turf writer followed her from a promising two-year-old to a stunning record-setting phenomenon. His account recalls the romance of being swept up in a time of greatness and the utter disbelief in how it came to an end.
One vivid moment the movie saved from Nack’s memoir is during the fateful match race between Ruffian and Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Seized by a flurry of emotions as Ruffian breaks down before his very eyes, Nack ducks under the rail and begins to run across the track. Not watching where he is going, Nack is nearly run over by Foolish Pleasure as the colt gallops through his path.
When I asked him how he felt about the movie’s graphic depiction of Ruffian’s leg snapping in two, Nack says at first he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. When playing the scene back for his grandkids, the children were so upset by it they ran out of the room. The more he thought about it, Nack remembers, the more he realized the movie, “needed to show what it was really like.” Though, he reminds me, the ending of the movie was softened up from the grisly scene of reality when Ruffian woke up from anesthesia for the first time, pin wheeling in circles and eventually shattering her elbow.
The death of racing’s greatest filly broke the hearts of not only Nack, but a third of the nation. What people Secretariat brought to the sport were outnumbered by the masses who turned their backs on it after Ruffian’s public ruin. In a way, this year’s Triple Crown echoes that span of two years.
While most turf enthusiasts agree Big Brown’s victory in the Kentucky Derby may prove to be the most impressive in history, the colt’s accomplishment has been greatly overshadowed by the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles. A more pivotal moment could not have been imagined for the Sport of Kings as it stands, balancing on a thread between a pinnacle of greatness and a valley of ruin.
And by how Bill Nack looks at him, Big Brown still has a lot to prove even if he does win the Triple Crown. Can the impressive colt hold a candle to the Greats of horse racing, the Secretariats and Seattle Slews? Nack reminds me that Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in a year where people claimed the 3-year-olds had little talent. He goes on to say nobody knew how good Slew really was until he beat the following year’s Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in a race for the ages at the 1978 Marlboro Cup.
“Casino Drive will be good for Big Brown [in the Belmont],” Nack considers. Until he’s “proven himself,” he isn’t willing to hold Brownie up to the level of the eleven Triple Crown winners. “He’s still got to get on his belly,” Nack says, cautioning my hopes for a Triple Crown. Big Brown doesn’t have an Alydar, after all. But maybe Big Brown has an Affirmed.
If Casino Drive doesn’t give Brownie a run for his money, I say Curlin needs to be called.