Monday, April 16, 2018

Nack Danced Like No One Was Watching

I am overwhelmed at the thought of writing this. The only comparison I can make is covering my first Kentucky Derby from the old Churchill Downs press box. I walked around for a while, had a beer, which I never do before writing, and walked around some more: The event was bigger than I was.

The news that a loved family member, a friend who enjoys such status, has passed, is always sad. And grief is a ritual that is unalterably the same. Shock leaves the starting gate first, followed closely by Deep Sadness and Life Must Go On. Celebration is always the slowest away from the slip.

Slip is a synonym for stalls. I use it because it’s a Bill Nack term and, from the beginning, he was the writer I wanted to be. I can’t exactly remember when I gave up that ghost, but I did so realizing that I could never cobble his prosaic style, only mimic it in the rare moment.

I was handicapping on a Saturday morning, a weekly ritual since 1961. The phone rang and my good friend Paul Cornman asked “if I heard.” That question is seldom accompanied by glad tidings. “Bill Nack passed last night.” In stunned disbelief, the news devastated me.

I knew that Bill was fighting cancer’s scourge and was beating it--his words the final time I saw him in Saratoga Springs last summer. He was a scheduled guest lecturer at the inaugural Equestricon.

Of course, Nack was waxing about Secretariat. When it wasn’t about Swaps, it was about Secretariat.

Coming from another exhibit, I was late to arrive but just in time to see Big Red of Meadow Stable curl into the wide expanse of Belmont Park’s far turn, a run memorialized by the late race caller Chic Anderson’s description of a horse “moving like a tremendous machine.”

Later, we visited, and were quickly joined by Ron Turcotte.

This was cosmic since it was Nack who got me in the door at Newsday--with an assist from a Hall of Famer. One afternoon in the Aqueduct press box I touted Nack on some Greentree horse. It won by 10. After a year’s trial, Newsday hired me as its first Thoroughbred handicapper.

Nack became a good friend, as he would for many tethered to horse racing. He also was a mentor who critiqued my columns. One I recall was a story on the sudden death of Belmont Stakes winner Swale. He was complimentary while making suggestions that would improve the next one.

I couldn’t vault down the steps of our Syosset split-level fast enough, excitedly telling my wife Toni: “That was Bill Nack on the phone. He liked my story.” But Bill and I disagreed, too, like horseplayers do.

There was a spring day in 1977 when I suggested that Seattle Slew was every bit the equal of Secretariat. Nack often stated how Secretariat changed his life forever, just as Slew did mine, writing Sunday of Derby week that Slew would be the first undefeated winner of the Triple Crown.

Alas, like Bob Dylan's iconic line acknowledging the lessons that life teaches, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

It would please Bill to know that I conceded the point in a recent poll of the “Best Horses of the Last 50 Years.” My cold exacta was Secretariat over Seattle Slew.

Of greater import is the fact that Nack was a war hero and patriot. A renaissance writer on horse racing and sports, he was a biographer of note, a film consultant, essayist, and prolific author.

Nack’s legacy is that of one of America’s great wordsmiths and teachers of his craft. It’s odds-on that anyone privileged to call him friend is profoundly saddened by his passing, especially when measured against the times in which all manner of Americans struggle to hold on to their dreams.

Nack taught me about nuance, to begin any worthwhile story with a narrative and bring the piece full circle by getting back to a lead that hopefully piqued the reader’s interest. And so I continue to work on that, something that was, for Bill, like taking in oxygen.

In the trade, Bill was known as a “bleeder,” laboring over each sentence as if it were the last one he would write. He was the last writer to leave the press box. At once he made an editor’s life difficult because he put them up against a deadline, but easy because his copy was impeccable.

As a young man who fancied himself a writer, I wanted nothing more than a job covering Thoroughbred racing. My role model was Bill, a divine aspiration.

Instead, the quest became the good news/bad news of a young professional's life: Good because his was the kind of work you wanted to emulate; bad because it would almost always come up short, like some miler trying to win a Derby.

Appreciation for Nack’s art is universal; a cross section:

“Bill Nack was from an era and of a manner I’ll always treasure. He had a way with words the rest of us could appreciate but not duplicate.”
Kenny Mayne, ESPN

“Bill did not just write about Secretariat, he was the Secretariat of horse racing writers. Best horse racing writer who ever lived, and by a mile.” Bill Finley, turf writer

“This is the kind of guy Nack was: He was incredibly encouraging and positive to those of us who came up under his wing and never could have 1% of the talent he did.” Jay Privman, NBC reporter

“I would suggest that the Eclipse Awards for writing, either feature commentary or news writing, be named, ‘The Bill Nack Eclipse Award’.”
Darin Zoccali, Meadowlands Harness

“I spent the day hoping the news was wrong, that Bill Nack wasn't really gone. He was a mentor, loyal friend, and the writer we all want to be.”
Jay Hovdey, DRF feature columnist

“Such a great turf writer, such a wonderful human being and such a class act... A stand-up guy for all that is best in racing... He always stood on the right side of the issues.”
Barry Irwin, Team Valor International

“Bill Nack was a superior writer, a great sports journalist and, more than all of that, a fine human being who contributed lots of good advice and good will to his many friends in and out of sports.” Steve Davidowitz, author

“He was a great American prose stylist,
” Roger Ebert, critic

“After Ruffian broke down in the match race, he blew past a NYRA security guard and was sprinting across the stretch at Belmont, rushing to get to the stricken filly when he was almost run down by Foolish Pleasure… It really happened,”
Ed Fountaine, New York Post, retired

It also happened that he would recite the last page of “The Great Gatsby” from memory when the spirit moved, the very last line so apropos in this moment: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In his remembrance of Nack this weekend, Sports Illustrated’s gifted racing writer Tim Layden wrote a tribute to Bill, one Nack truly would have appreciated. It began, fittingly, with this narrative:

“He was sitting in the darkness, silhouetted by the blue light from a first-generation portable computer while nearby we all drank deeply from glasses and bottles and cans and talked a little too loudly… It was the summer of 1981 at a house party in Saratoga Springs. The Travers had been run that day and the celebration of that horse race had carried into the summer night…

“I stood outside the door and watched as Bill typed, wondering what genius might be unfolding in his words…Before the night was over, Bill would finish his work and join us on the deck. He made the night better, like he made every night better, filling the humid air with stories about Bill Shoemaker and Woody Stephens and Secretariat. Of course, about Secretariat…”

In 1990, Nack wrote an emotional, personal remembrance about the horse that was central to his life and career. From Sports Illustrated, June 4, 1990, “Pure Heart”:

“Oh, I knew all the stories,” Nack wrote, “knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm. Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life.

“Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message. Dreamed them and turned them over like pillows in my rubbery sleep. Wake up with them, brushed my aging teeth with them, grinned at them in the mirror…”

There never has been turf writing such as this and in today’s world, where words are measured 280 characters at a time, there never will be again.

In closing, the words of a family friend comfort a jumble of feelings trapped inside, not knowing in which direction to run; to the light' or away from the pain. She wrote:

“I have had the opportunity to meet extraordinary people from all walks of life on my journey, those people who draw you into their extraordinary energy field and leave an impression that is permanent--Bill Nack was amongst the most extraordinary of that group.

“A really important light has gone out. It just was nice to know that Bill Nack was in the world.”

Written by John Pricci

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