Saturday, October 23, 2010
Death Killed a Sports Illustrated Cover
Industry leaders quail when it's suggested that horse racing is no longer relevant. But for a lesson in how far the sport has regressed in the media's consciousness, go no further than "Sports Illustrated: The Covers," a current coffee-table book that includes all of the front pages from the magazine since its inception in 1954. In Sports Illustrated's early years, it was not uncommon for racing to appear on its covers. Criminy, the magazine even had one cover that featured the opening of the season at Hialeah. Nothing else. The opening of Hialeah, period. Nowadays, even a good race-fixing scandal probably wouldn't tempt Sports Illustrated's cover editors.
Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year Award, in 1954, went to Roger Bannister, the sub-four-minute miler from England. The next year, according to "The Covers," the magazine was prepared to honor William Woodward Jr., who bred and raced Nashua. But shortly before that issue was to come out, Woodward, only 35, was killed by his wife with a shotgun in the middle of the night at their Long Island estate. His death, ruled an accident, was the first in a series of tragedies to befall the wealthy Woodwards. Their family curse made Arthur Conan Doyle's Baskervilles seem like pikers.
Podres seemed like a weak choice then, and he still does. Usually SI's top honor has gone to someone for a year-long body of work, and Podres, while winning one other game in that series, was a sub-.500 pitcher who at best was the No. 4 pitcher on the Brooklyn staff. The magazine would have been better served not to have strayed from Nashua, and given the accolade to Eddie Arcaro, who rode the colt in nine of his 10 wins during a Horse of the Year campaign. Arcaro also led the country in purses, with a total of almost $2 million, and won with 19% of his mounts, which for the uninitiated is a good batting average in riderdom.
Until now, the magazine had made no mention of the Podres-for-Woodward last-minute switch. In the 1955 Sportsman of the Year issue, it was said that a photographer was dispatched to Podres' hometown in the New York Adirondacks, where the pitcher donned a Dodger cap, uniform top and sweatshirt to pose. That's the chest-high shot of Podres that ran on the cover, not very flattering work for a publication that prided itself on its cutting-edge photography, but I suppose all of this was done without too much time to spare.
Back on page 27, in a section that highlighted the year, they ran a photo of the Woodwards--Billy, as he was called, and Ann, a onetime model from rural Kansas, with Arcaro and the trophy they won for their colt beating Swaps, the Kentucky Derby winner, in the celebrated match race at Washington Park.
There had been evidence of a prowler on the Woodward property, and the handsome couple, after attending a soiree for the Duchess of Windsor, had arrived home late on the last night of William Woodward's life. They slept in separate bedrooms, on opposite sides of a hall, and by mutual agreement both went to bed with firearms at the ready. They were experts with guns--on one hunting expedition, in the jungles of India, Ann Woodward had bagged a pair of Bengal tigers, one of which, 10 feet in length, was said to be the largest of its breed ever brought in by a woman.
When the police arrived just after 2 in the morning, they found the nude body of William Woodward, his face a bloody mess. Ann Woodward, in her bedroom, was hysterical and incoherent. The Woodwards' sons, ages 11 and 7, slept through the shooting. The Woodwards' barking dog awakened the couple, and Ann Woodward, the shotgun in hand, stepped into the hallway and fired at what she later said was a "shadow" across the hall.
William Woodward's grieving mother, who may have been no fan of her bluecollar-bred daughter-in-law to begin with, never bought into the official version of her son's death. There were bags of money, of course, awaiting the widow Woodward. Twenty years later, Ann Woodward, by now in her early 50s, killed herself. It was said that a magazine excerpt of an unpublished Truman Capote novel, which trashed a woman whom no one could miss for the real Woodward widow, had sent Ann Woodward over the brink. When she died by her own hand, her 90-something mother-in-law said: "Well, that's that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, so now I suppose we don't have to worry about that anymore."
William and Ann Woodward's sons also became suicides. Jimmy, the youngest, who had given in to the demons of drugs, jumped to his death from a hotel window in 1976. Twenty-three years later, William Woodward III took a dry dive from the 14th floor of an apartment building.
As for Nashua, he sort of got his comeuppance in 1956, as a 4-year-old. Now owned by Leslie Combs II, he won some important races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he was beaten four times and Swaps was voted Horse of the Year. I don't know why, but it took until 1965 before Nashua was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame. He still belongs on that short list of "best horses never to have won the Kentucky Derby."
And Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year? After the Woodward near-miss, the magazine didn't honor a racing figure until they gave the award to the apprentice Steve Cauthen in 1977. SI hasn't found a deserving horse or horseman since then. If Zenyatta wins the Breeders' Cup Classic again, she should send them a postcard.