A series of fateful occurrences all led to the Secretariat of turf writers becoming Secretariat’s biographer.
Without any one of those events, a riveted crowd numbering well over 100 would not have gathered Sunday afternoon in the Dole Institute to listen to William Nack tell stories about his life and that of the horse who became such a big part of it.
He grew up outside of Chicago, first riding show horses, then becoming enamored with thoroughbreds.
“During the summer I’d go to the racetrack with my father,” said Nack, who signed copies of his book “Secretariat” after speaking. “Most boys bonded with their father over baseball games. I did not do that. I cannot go to the racetrack to this day and smell a cigar without thinking of my father.”
His first trip to the racetrack came at the age of 14, and as luck would have it that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Swaps, Nack’s “hero,” was paraded in front of the crowd with jockey Bill Shoemaker on top of him.
“So I dashed down to the rail, and I yelled out, ‘Bill, over here,’ like I knew him, like he was a buddy of mine,” Nack said. “And he brought him over, and that horse dropped his head over the rail, and I reached up my hand, and he breathed on it. And I can still feel the hot breath on the back of my right hand right now. After that, I said, ‘This is it for me. I’ve got to do this.’ You know what it’s like for a horse to breathe on your hand like that?”
No. I know so little about horses that when my cousin Frank and I visited our Uncle Bud, a retired veterinarian who used to own trotters, at his home near Syracuse, N.Y., trying to fill the conversation gap, I asked Bud if the owner of the stud horse got first pick of the litter. Ashamed to be related, my cousin Frank undressed me with “You dope. They’re not puppies. Do you know how much they weigh when they’re born?” Obviously not.
Anyway, Nack explained the power of a horse’s breath.
“It’s the coolest feeling,” he said. “It’s a very affectionate kind of thing. It’s very sweet. It’s how they communicate.”
That day, Nack went home and memorized the names of all the Kentucky Derby winners.
After attending University of Illinois and serving as sports editor at the Daily Illini under Roger Ebert, who would become a legendary film critic, Nack served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. He landed a job at Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., and in 1971 was “really a sewer writer, writing about activated sludge and things like that.”
His next step toward Secretariat came in the Newsday newsroom during a 1971 Christmas party. At the urging of friends who knew he had memorized the Derby winners, he stood atop a desk and recited all the winners’ names from 1875 to 1971. Little did Nack know that Newsday’s editor, David Laventhol, doubled as the paper’s horse handicapper under a pen name. Levanthol asked him if he would like to become the paper’s horse-racing writer. He said he would and was told to write him a letter requesting the job change.
“The only thing I remember of that note is one line,” Nack said, “and that is, ‘After covering politicians for four-and-a-half years, I would like to have the chance to cover the whole horse.’”
If you didn’t catch that, re-read it. It brought the house down. At that point, he gave a nod to the building from which he was giving his talk.
“I did say at the bottom of the note, ‘I do not include Robert Dole in this judgment, however,’” Nack said.
The young writer had some sewage (reporting) to clean up before becoming a horse writer in March of 1972. Several weeks later, he covered his first Kentucky Derby winner, Riva Ridge. Born in Virginia, Secretariat lived on the same Clairborne Farm as Riva Ridge in Kentucky. It was there that exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney first showed Secretariat to Nack and shared a forecast of greatness. Based on that tip, Nack took a special interest and became close to the animal that was named horse of the year as a 2-year-old and a year later capped his Triple Crown with the greatest performance in history in the Belmont.
Before the Triple Crown, Secretariat already had saved the financially troubled Claiborne Farm when a syndicate paid $6 million for breeding rights for the virgin horse. Nack calculated that the horse was worth $270 an ounce, or three times the value of gold at the time.
Secretariat, by Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal, derived its speed from his father, his endurance from his mother. Sham, a horse Nack insists would win the Triple Crown this year, was the second-best horse in 1973. He had the same maternal grand-sire as Secretariat, Princequillo, conceived in France and born in Ireland.
“His owners kept him ahead of the Nazi armies,” Nack said of Princequillo. “He was kind of an orphan of the war, really. He came from Ireland by boat, in a ship through submarine-infested waters and landed in New York.”
After a successful career as a distance racer, Princequillo retired from racing, but his owner, according to Nack, “couldn’t get anyone to stand him in stud because stamina horses don’t have much appeal.”
Bull Hancock took and stood him in stud on his farm in Virginia for a stud fee of “$250 and two empty Coca Cola bottles,” Nack said.
Hilldene, an old blind mare, was taken to Princequillo, got pregnant and dropped Hill Prince, a Belmont winner. After that, Princequillo was moved to Kentucky and had an even easier time of carving notches in his belt than the late great Wilt Chamberlain.
“I would not be here if it were not for that little war orphan,” Nack said of Princequillo.
Nack breezily carried the audience on a ride of stories about Secretariat’s playful personality. Nack saw the horse imitate its groom, Eddie Sweat, raking the shed, holding the rake in his mouth and pushing it back and forth. The chestnut champion once plucked Nack’s notebook, held it in his mouth, retreated and dropped it only at Sweat’s behest.
Nack happened to visit the farm the day it was learned Secretariat was gravely ill. Two days later, the horse died.
“I broke down and cried against the wall of my hotel room when I found out he died,” said Nack, who likened it to losing a child. “... I was so close to him emotionally. I had spent so many hours with him and I’d take people on tours of Clairborne Farm and say, ‘Here he is.’ He’d be galloping around the paddock. A lot of my emotional energy was tied to that animal. It probably sounds a little bit silly, but it’s not. I really looked up to him. He was one of the greatest athletes I’d ever seen.”
One of the all-time great athletes.
“When ESPN decided to make him the 35th most important athlete of the 20th century there were arguments,” Nack said. “Want to know one of the reasons? Mickey Mantle was No. 36. All the Yankee fans were outraged: ‘How can you have a horse ahead of Mickey Mantle?’ ”
The writer who has quite the knack for the one-liner, had a response for them and he shared it with the Dole Institute audience: “Well, Secretariat never got drunk and disorderly.”