There were no Eclipse Awards for turf writing in 1949, but if there had been, W.C. Heinz would have won one by acclimation. "Death of a Racehorse," written by Heinz under deadline for the old New York Sun, was not only the best racing story that year, it would be the best racing story any year.

W.C. Heinz--his friends called him Bill--died this week, age 93. He was not a turf writer, and from what I can gather, his favorite sport was boxing by a wide margin, but he was a man who could write about anything. He covered the Normandy invasion during World War II. He co-wrote the book on which the TV show "MASH" was based. He wrote fiction that elicited a bouquet from Hemingway. His sportswriting peers--Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson--called him the best in the business.


I'm sorry I never met Bill Heinz. After his newspaper went under, he turned to freelancing, and made a nice living doing books and magazine articles in an era, I think, when good writing was more appreciated. Today, Heinz might turn in a story on the Kentucky Derby, and an editor would ask: "Where are the parimutuel payoffs? How come you didn't include the winning horse's fractional splits?"

The racetrack wasn't one of Heinz' biggest loves, but he was at the old Jamaica track in 1949, hanging out with Jim Roach, of the New York Times. A well-bred 2-year-old was making his first start.

"Air Lift, full brother of Assault," Roach said before the race, and Heinz put that in his story.

"They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica," Heinz also wrote. "Two year olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for four thousand dollars. They were moving slowly down the backstretch toward the gate, some of them cantering, others walking, and in the press box they had stopped working on the kidding to watch, most of them interested in one horse."

Air Lift broke down.

"Down below," Heinz continued to write, "they were roaring for the rest, coming down the stretch now, but in the infield men were running toward the turn, running toward the colt and the boy (jockey) standing beside him, alone. There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance."

Heinz went downstairs, perhaps to interview Dave Gorman, who was riding Air Lift. He was met by another jockey, who told him:

"Gorman was crying like a baby. He said he must have stepped in a hole, but you should have seen him crying."

Heinz pursued the story to the barn, where the veterinarians J.G. Catlett and Manny Gilman were on duty.

"We might as well get him out of the van," Heinz heard Catlett say. "Before we give him the novocaine. It'll be a little better out in the air."

Heinz finished his piece with:

"They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

"'Aw--------,' someone said.

"That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault."

This is just a condensation, but you get the idea. Dave Anderson, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, was working as a go-fer at the New York Sun during his senior year in high school, in 1946. One of his jobs was to fill in at the supply office, which doubled as a mail room. One day a box arrived from overseas, addressed, simply, "Bill Heinz, c/o New York Sun." Anderson opened it and found the old beat-up Remington portable typewriter that Heinz had used to write his war stories.

Anderson went home, and his mother asked him how his day had been.

"I was in charge of Bill Heinz' typewriter today," Dave Anderson said proudly.