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

Comments (23)


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Racing Community, Procedural Law & Cuomo Clemency Program Supports License Reinstatement for Dutrow

As a result of a grass roots movement initiated by Churchill Downs’ all-time leading trainer Dale Romans, a petition supporting the reinstatement of Rick Dutrow Jr.’s license to train Thoroughbreds has attracted 1,916 signatures in less than a fortnight.

The support this petition attracted is as unique as the 10-year revocation of Dutrow’s trainer’s license based of an overage for a legal therapeutic medication and the discovery of vials containing another permissible drug, the latter from a highly controversial search of Dutrow’s barn in November, 2010.

In a 2016 amended Notice of Motion, the New York Gaming Commission Division of Thoroughbred Racing learned that the state’s lead investigator, Joel Leveson, perjured himself on multiple occasions based on interviews conducted with three NYRA investigators by the Queens County District Attorney’s Office.

The new evidence relies heavily on the testimony of NYRA investigator John McDonnell, a distinguished New York State Police investigator for 22 years prior to working for the New York Racing Association.

McDonnell came forward to “clear his name” after reviewing Leveson’s Hearing testimony.

NYRA’s investigator stated Leveson’s testimony “was inaccurate with what happened” during the search. McDonnell believed it was a random search conducted by Leveson. Juxtaposed, Leveson’s Hearing testimony indicated the search was conducted at the direction of McDonnell. McDonnell vehemently denied that assertion.

McDonnell also told the District Attorney’s office that Leveson found the syringes in a desk draw almost immediately upon entering Dutrow's barn office. “[I] was very uncomfortable with the sudden discovery of the items." In all his years, McDonnell said, “I was never that lucky.”

By and large, the racing community wants Dutrow’s reinstatement--even if his presence results in taking money from their own pockets.

Among the notable petition signatories are natural rivals such as Todd Pletcher, Johnny Velazquez and his agent, legendary Hall of Famer Angel Cordero Jr.

Other trainers who would compete with Dutrow across the country have signed on: Brian Lynch, Jimmy Jerkens, Peter Miller, Jeremiah Englehart, Kellen Gorder and Gary Contessa, Kristen Mulhall, to name just a few.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, not known as a racing fan, very likely would favor Dutrow’s reinstatement as the author of New York’s Pro Bono Clemency Program. When granting two commutations and two pardons to four convicted criminals in 2015, Cuomo said:

“We are taking a critical step toward a more just, fair, and more compassionate New York. With this initiative, we are seeking to identify those deserving of a second chance and to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.”

A second remedy for Board consideration is Section 470.15 of Criminal Procedure Law: “As a matter of discretion, and in the ‘instance of justice’, discretionary power specifically includes the authority to reduce a sentence because that punishment, ‘though legal, was unduly harsh or severe’.”


At the heart of the case against a world class horseman is his penchant for not knowing when to keep their shut, and when Thoroughbred racing is embarrassed, the punishment it meters out usually results in significant overreach.

For Dutrow, the consequences were an unprecedented and disproportionate sanction that gravely damaged his life and livelihood.

Lacking both guile and a completed high school education, his audacious, naïve innocence to tell the whole truth about the physical condition of his horse six days prior to the 2008 Belmont Stakes opened a chapter in his life that would end disastrously.

In a Belmont-week press conference, Dutrow reaffirmed to the sports media, more familiar with baseball and football than horse racing, that his Triple Crown hopeful would run in the series finale without a then legal anabolic steroid. And for good reason.

Big Brown gets hands-on treatment from Dutrow
Photo by Corey Sipkin, New York Daily News

Noted hoof specialist Ian MacKinlay had been called in by Dutrow to treat Big Brown’s historically problematic feet, specifically to patch a quarter crack. MacKinlay insists that any horse he works on be medication free prior to the procedure.

But the mainstream media ran with the steroid angle and 36-point tabloid headlines ensued. Because of Barry Bonds and other prodigious home run hitters of the day, horse racing had become huge negative national news.

Just as the Belmont Stakes speed horses entered the homestretch in Elmont, jockey Kent Desormeaux was taking care of his troubled mount, easing Big Brown out of the race before reaching headstretch. Over 100,000 racing fans gasped at the sight in disbelief.

Fast-forward to Breeders’ Cup week two years later. Dutrow was training an extremely fast colt named Boys At Toscanova, who was co-favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile along with the eventual 2008 juvenile champion, Uncle Mo.

On November 2, Dutrow boarded a Kentucky-bound plane with a television crew and other horses he was entering that weekend at Churchill Downs. The trip came soon after he announced to ESPN’s national audience that the entourage would soon be Louisville bound.

The next morning, Dutrow’s barn was searched by Joel Leveson, et al, and three syringes were “discovered” in Dutrow’s office desk draw.

What happened thereafter was a conspiracy of events that painted a false picture of Dutrow, one culled from incomplete and inaccurate records. Certain aspects of the search were illegal, including a broken chain of evidentiary custody.

In the end, Dutrow’s 10-years revocation a harsher than those assessed on a trainer who administered a narcotic painkiller, Darvon; another for use of an illegal, manufactured synthetic opiate more potent than morphine, and a third against a trainer who administered dermorphin, a powerful Class 1A painkiller.

At this juncture, Dutrow’s best chance for reinstatement is the evidence that might have come too late to help Dutrow at a State Administrative Hearing but significant enough for the trainer’s to file a Motion in June of 2017.

A State Administrative Hearing is one conducted by a Hearing Officer. In this process, hearsay is permitted and due process is not a requirement.

HRI acquired a copy of the DA’s report in which NYRA investigators John McDonnell, John Clyne and Denice Vasquez were interviewed. (Vasquez, who was observed entering Dutrow’s barn 40 minutes before Leveson arrived, was fired by NYRA two months later).

There were other facets to the barn search that raises questions in addition to McDonnell’s comments relative to Leveson. A routine barn search normally takes about two hours to conduct.

By all accounts, Leveson was there approximately a total of 15 minutes after first entering Dutrow’s barn unaccompanied and proceeding directly to Dutrow’s office.

None of the stalls housing 58 head were searched, nor were any of six tack boxes, which would be common procedure. Dutrow had another dozen horses housed in the next barn that was never searched.

Eventually but not long after giving testimony, Leveson resigned and spent a duration of his time afterward in his home in Panama.

Immediately after the stewards issued their 90-day suspension and no fine, American Racing Commissioner’s International insinuated itself into the process by issuing.

The intervention by the ARCI, spelled out in a series of e-mails between its chairman and that of the Kentucky Racing Commission—reprinted in our original reporting on this case in 2015--was instrumental in Dutrow’s being denied a Kentucky license.

The suspension of Dutrow’s Kentucky license was the lynchpin upon which New York built its case.

The above is a small part of the story, an onion with many noteworthy layers of malfeasance. But neither Dutrow, his attorneys, nor the racing community, are interested in re-litigating, holding anyone to account. It’s about getting a second chance.

Dutrow has served five years, two months, and counting. While harsh, the stewards considered a 90-day suspension appropriate and just. But when those findings were challenged on appeal, a three-month suspension turned into a 10-year revocation.


In the amended Notice of Motion before the New York State Gaming Commission Division of Thoroughbred Racing are these certifiable facts:

• Dutrow has started over 7,200 horses in his career and won with 25% of his starters, including a Breeders’ Cup Classic, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Over 60% of his starters have been tested.

• No horse trained by Dutrow suffered a fatal breakdown at a New York track, either racing or in training, for 11 consecutive years.

• ARCI records dating back to 1976 show that Dutrow never has been found guilty of using a banned substance. The record does shows three overages for two legal therapeutics; one for Mepivacaine and two for Clenbuterol.

• Character witnesses at time of the Hearing included MLB Executive Joe Torre, philanthropist W.K. Warren and voluntary support from long-time NYRA steward Dave Hicks, who passed away prior to an appearance as a character witness.

• Dutrow was denied an opportunity to work with layups and active horses at Frank Stronach’s Ocala Farm. Dutrow was offered a salary of $100,000 per year.

• During his suspension, Dutrow performed low-profile charity work, working with autistic children, war veterans and Alzheimer patients, through the charity “Horse Abilities.”

• Sworn testimony from Dr. Larry Bramlage, regarded as the world’s foremost equine surgeon: “I like very much to work on [Mr. Dutrow’s] horses because he recognizes problems prior to them becoming very serious…He’s one of the top handful of trainers we work with that are able to do that.

“The health of his horses are impeccable when we get them. He has never once told me that we want to do this the cheapest way or less than satisfactory way…he says “we want to do this in the best way.”

• The Administrative Hearing Officer referenced “numerous drug violations for the use of phenylbutazone in Florida.” In fact, there were seven such instances, all resulting in fines of either $250 or $500.

• As to the Hearing Officer’s claims that Dutrow showed “a consistent inability to abide by regulatory rules” by falsifying license applications in California, Kentucky and Delaware, the ARCI records he referenced are devoid of such entries with no such rulings reflecting those applications. There was, however, a 1979 instance in connection with a “temporary license.”


In any competitive endeavor, especially those involving high stakes, there are feuds born out of jealousy and frustration. But make no mistake: If the issue is one of fairness, justice, and what’s best for the Thoroughbred, racetrackers unite around a cause.

What at once is shocking and gratifying is the fact they would rally behind a man whose return to the game in many cases would cost them money.

The common thread at work is a second chance for a trainer some have described as an “equine savant,” a horseman who has demonstrated that he puts his horses first.

Here are handful of signatories from anyone and everyone tethered to Thoroughbreds, be they fans, owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, agents, breeders and media members.

The following is only a partial list, supplied by Dutrow’s counsel, of racing luminaries that have signed on, by category:

OWNERS: Chip Acerno, Clark Brewster, Paul Carlucci, Michael Casper, Michael Dubb, Eric Fein, Louis Lazzinaro, Jack Mondato, Paul Pompa, Ken Ramsey, Mike Repole, Lanston Robbins III, Vincent Scuderi, Barry K. Schwartz, Samantha Siegel, Becky Thomas, Roddy Valente, Aron Yagoda

JOCKEYS: Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, Joe Bravo, Eric Cancel, Angel Cordero Jr., Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez, Stuart Elliot, Tammie Fox, Manuel Franco, Abel Lezcano, Mike Luzzi, Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr., Hall of Famer Edgar Prado, Jeremy Rose, Luis Saez, Jean-Luc Samyn, Hall of Famer Jose Santos and Velazquez

Mike Lakow, Ron Anderson, Walter Blum, Bill Castle, Richard Depass, Ronnie Ebanks, Jimmy Riccio Jr., Michael Sellito,

VETERINARIANS: Dr. Stephen Barker, Dr. Bramlage, Michael Galvin DVM, Thomas Tobin DVM

Donna Brothers, Steven Crist, Ed Fountaine, Karen Johnson, Barbara Livingston, Frank Lyons, Ernie Munick, Dick Powell, Randy Moss, Anthony Stabile, Jonathan Stettin and HRI Staffers Mark Berner, Tom Jicha and John Pricci

INDUSTRY RELATED: Aaron Cohen, Jim Gallagher, Bernie Hettel, Bruce Johnstone, Drew Mollica ESQ, NYRA assistant starters (3), Rick Proctor, Dr. Thomas Qualtere, Lou Raffeto Jr., Gerald Romski, Sobhy Sonbol, and Rudy Wollendale


The Governor of the State of New York, whatever the politics, knows something about justice and the dignity that goes along with second-chance opportunities.

Dutrow’s counsel stipulated in their Motion that if some form of probationary rider were attached to the reinstatement, it would be OK with them and their client; whatever it takes.

All it takes is a fair review of the circumstance of the case and consideration of new evidence unavailable in 2011.

It is just to acknowledge the overwhelming support of a highly competitive community; the quiet good works; and revisiting of the outstanding achievements of an old school horseman.

The members of the New York State Gaming Commission, none of whom were present when the politics of the old SRWB unjustly levied outlandish and disproportionate sanctions on a horseman that never was found guilty of administering illegal drugs. The next NYSGC meeting is April 23.

No trainer I know or ever heard of can boast of a record for soundness over a virtually unsustainable 11-year period. That statistic alone is worthy of a second chance. As cited above, it’s all but certain that the most powerful person in New York State would agree.

Link to petition: (

Written by John Pricci

Comments (28)


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Glory Days and Hialeah Park

An inescapable factor for those who admit to a passion for Thoroughbred racing, with all its pomp and circumstance, its triumphs and its tragedies, is the wonder of renewal.

Three-year-olds prep in winter for the Classics of Spring, followed by the bookended summer glory of Saratoga and Del Mar, the coming of age in fall, the Breeders’ Cup and crowning of champions.

Immediately after the last glass of Christmas is raised, the future comes into clearer focus with the rekindling of prime time Santa Anita, Gulfstream’s championship session, and regeneration begins in earnest.

Suddenly it’s New Year’s Day: Happy Birthday equine friends, time has come to regroup, renew, rinse and repeat, as the game has for centuries, not only here but all around the world.

Once upon a time, Hialeah Park, a glorious racing cathedral, was a racetrack that provided the kind of high-profile focus the sport needs if it’s to deliver on its promise of endless summers at the races.

The dream that was Hialeah died decades ago. The man who made it possible, John J. Brunetti, passed a fortnight ago. So, now what?

Over a series of three days, I saw racing’s renewal process over the course of a single weekend. It began at a small racetrack on the Redneck Riviera. The Tampa Bay Derby, the new kid on the classics-prep block, was offered for a 38th time.

The voice of the first one, Tom Durkin, was in attendance to cheer on Untamed Domain. As a small part of the West Point syndicate, it was time to see whether the gifted sophomore turfer belonged on the Derby trail. He handled the dirt, not the competition.

The next time I saw the acclaimed race caller, he was hosting a memorial service for Hialeah’s visionary track owner, known to those closest to him as JJB.

“Memorial services, by definition, have a sense of finality,” Durkin began. “…But legacy has nothing to do with finality. Legacy is about the future. And JJB’s legacy is prodigious.”

“…Were it not for Mr. Brunetti,” he continued, “You probably would be seated in a parking lot of come soulless strip mall.

“Instead, solely because of him, solely because of his tenacity, solely because of his unshakable will to do the right thing, today you are in a place of never-to-be-imagined-again beauty and grandeur.

“… Myself, dozens of you, indeed hundreds of you, will come to owe Mr. Brunetti an inexpressible gratitude for the opportunities he has made possible, life changing opportunities.

“I was the track announcer here many years ago. Mr. Brunetti stuck his neck out, laid his own reputation on the line to give a virtual unknown the opportunity to perform on the big stage.

“Believe me, in 1981, Hialeah was a very big stage. There are a hundred JJB stories like mine.”

As I walked through the grandstand into the clubhouse, I thought about the time John Brunetti went out of his way to make his new paddock analyst feel welcome. It was a two-year stint, the first and only racetrack job I had after leaving Newsday.

It was while I was a Newsday racing writer that I first met Durkin. Had to tell him how much I enjoyed his race descriptions, expressing that I didn’t miss a second of the action while I sat with my feet up on the moat that surrounding Citation’s bronze image.

And I also thought of the day I took Toni to Hialeah for the first time to see the storied race course and a magnificent equine called Turkoman. The feature was the six-furlong Tallahassee Handicap and it marked the seasonal debut of the 1986 handicap champion.

The 17-hands beast spotted super-fast Beveled a ton of weight and a 10-length stretch lead, but Turkoman ran him down with giant strides in 1:08 1/5. His momentum was such that he galloped out one mile in 1:32 3/5, two ticks off Dr. Fager’s then world record.

All the moments flashed as I listened to family recollections of Brunetti’s two sons, John Jr. and Stephen, who worked for their father when I was there. Durkin was made an offer by The Meadowlands and moved on, making way for another newcomer, Frank Mirahmadi.

I knew of JJB’s charitable reputation but did not realize Hialeah was Miami University’s main corporate sponsor of their sports programs, or that he founded an organization at St. Thomas University that was one of the first to battle the scourge of human trafficking.

At the conclusion of ceremonies, hundreds of attendees were invited to stand at the clubhouse rail and, after all were gathered, Durkin intoned, as he had done many times before; “ladies and gentlemen, the flight of the flamingos.”

As I looked around it was impossible not to notice all the warts that time has wrought, even as the marble floor of the first-floor clubhouse glistened under foot. Stephen Brunetti’s expressed the hope that the family would keep JJB’s legacy of Red Oak Stable and Hialeah Park alive.

At a reception after the service, I saw my old boss, Rick Sacco, of the famed New Jersey racing family that he worked for the Brunettis for decades. “So, Rick, do you think the boys will make good on Stephen’s promise?”

“We’re working on it,” said Hialeah’s now General Manager. And so the weekend ended with the hope that one day, Thoroughbred racing’s circle game will be renewed at 2200 E 4th Avenue, hard by recently dubbed John Brunetti Way, in the city of Hialeah.

HIALEAH, FL, March 19, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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