HRN Original Blog:
The Gallop Out

Remembering writer Bill Nack, whose heart rivaled Secretariat's

Secretariat runs on the turf during historic 1973 campaign (photo courtesy of Adam Coglianse)
Photo: Adam Coglianse

“I have thought of Ruffian so often that today she flits around like a ghost in all the mustier rooms of my reveries, a boarder who has had a run of the place,” Bill Nack wrote about the licorice filly that had invaded his heart in his book, “Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance.” His style was that of a sports journalist with the soul of a poet. 

William L. Nack passed away on Friday, April 13, at the age of 77. He began his career at Newsday, writing about politics and sports before joining Sports Illustrated in 1978 as an investigative journalist. Nack later wrote for numerous publications including GQ. He is best known for penning the definitive biography of Secretariat, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” in 1975. 

Nack had gotten to know the Meadow Stable crowd from having covered the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge. Once trainer Lucien Laurin decided to use the New York prep races on Secretariat’s road to the Kentucky Derby, Nack began showing up at Barn 5 at Belmont, scribbling on pads of paper every detail of the day. The big horse had a pigeon feather on his nose the eve of the Preakness. Nack took this feather and put it in his wallet along with a worn photo of one of his favorite horses, Swaps. He would pull it out and tell friends of Secretariat’s Preakness win. 

Throughout those magical days, Nack was there for it all. The morning of Secretariat’s Belmont he saw the big horse become startled as he reared up on his hind legs. During the Belmont, he was yelling,”You’re going too fast,” as he watching the other-worldly performance of the brilliant chestnut horse.

When Secretariat finished racing, Nack traveled on the flight with the horse, owner Penny Chenery, and Laurin to Lexington, Ky., before driving to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., for this second career at stud. Nack wrote, ”For me, the final walk beneath the grove of trees with the colt slanting like a buck through the autumn gloaming, brought to a melancholy close the richest, grandest, damnedest, most exhilarating time of my life.” 

Whenever Nack was in Louisville, he would drive the hour to Claiborne, to see the thoroughbred that had taken him on the journey of a lifetime. In October 1989, Nack went to the farm and saw Secretariat out grazing, being held by a lead shank. He looked a bit lighter in size. There wasn’t anyone around so Nack went to the office and saw the secretary was crying. She told Nack that Secretariat had laminitis and was quite ill. This shook the journalist. When he was notified of the great horse’s death, he says, he cried for the second time in his life. 

A few months later, Nack took this experience and his time with the great horse and wrote an article for Sports Illustrated. The article is “Pure Heart.” In it, Nack opens up with the death of Secretariat. He describes what was found in the necropsy. “All the vital organs were of normal size except for the heart….I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”

William Nack also wrote “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life,” in 2004. He also served as an advisor for the movie, “Secretariat” and the television movie “Ruffian.”


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Meet Mary Dixon Reynolds

Mary Dixon Reynolds’ passion for horses began at an early age. She grew up riding, showing and training Arabians. The great Curlin brought her into horse racing and the celebrated filly, Rachel Alexandra, solidified her love of the sport. The amateur handicapper found beginner's luck during her first outing to a racetrack, the now-defunct Colonial Downs near Richmond, Va.

From a small town in the the Tar Heel state, Mary Dixon studied English literature and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three years before graduating at Guilford College. She shares a passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald with her favorite writer, the late William L. Nack, whose books she possesses and are well worn from rereading.

Mary Dixon first appeared on Horse Racing Nation as a guest columnist, writing articles about California Chrome, his fan base, and the great filly Songbird. She aspires to bring new people into our sport and to promote thoroughbred aftercare, recognizing that for our sport to thrive, we must take care of our athletes after they leave the track

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