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“Why’s this so good?” No. 4: W.C. Heinz on Air Lift, son of Bold Venture

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On a rainy afternoon in 1949, W.C. Heinz watched a beautiful young horse break its leg and then get shot in the head. And then he sat down and wrote about it for the readers of the New York Sun, ordinary men and women, commuters and shoeshine kids.

More than 60 years after it was written, on deadline, on a typewriter, in a grandstand press box, “Death of a Racehorse” has earned a cult following among sportswriting’s romantics. But recognition came late, because Heinz didn’t define his era so much as he defied it. Other sportswriters were celebrated for their verbiage, their punny cleverness, their obscure references and nose-stretching metaphors. Heinz was a devotee of the words that aren’t there. “Death of a Racehorse” was his newsprint masterpiece, and its genius rests in its restraint.

His lede isn’t some textbook grabber or purple prose. It’s informational. Heinz takes his time with us, because he has faith.

Where he’s quicker is in his establishment of the horse’s pedigree. In a single paragraph devoid of complete sentences, he makes sure we understand that Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault, is a horse of potential.

Perfect details are the reward of great reporting, and great reporting builds the backbone of every great story. What’s harder to explain is what magic makes some details so essential and others not. Heinz could have done much more to tell us about Air Lift – so that later, we might be appropriately struck by the tragedy of its death. But he knows when he’s done enough.

That’s true throughout the piece. There are quite a few quotes, but not all of them are attributed. Imagine! Heinz quotes “somebody,” “one of them,” “the man.” Today a style guide-waving editor would demand names, ages, hometowns, occupations. But who really cares who said these things, so long as somebody did? This story feels relentless because it is. It never diverts. It never stops.

Early on, Heinz does name a person he’s quoting – a man named Jim Roach – but doesn’t bother to tell us who Jim Roach is, exactly. It turns out I couldn’t give a crap. He’s obviously a man who knows his horses, and that’s enough.

Enough, again and again and again. Heinz never makes the mistake of telling us too much, of becoming sentimental or maudlin. We see the blood. We hear the jockey’s crying. We shiver with each clap of thunder and the coming rain. These are the only things that matter in the world.

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks.

That’s my favorite sentence in this piece. Heinz uses “moved” twice, because that was the right word twice. I would wager that Heinz did not own a thesaurus. More important – and again, this is hard to explain – his choice to mention the pile of loose bricks, and the pile of loose bricks only, has always stuck with me.

He doesn’t do much else to set the scene. Yes, he describes some of the crowd, but only vaguely. He describes the coming storm. But he hasn’t written so much as he’s reported. Nearly every sentence in this story contains a fact and that’s about it. There are no metaphors or similes, unless you count his note that the gun is shaped like a bell. There are very few adverbs, and every quote is said – not exclaimed or opined or bleated. And in this place where this horse died, there was a pile of loose bricks.

This horse died out of the way. It died where useless things were left out in the rain. It died in a heap.

We know that not because Heinz told us so, at least not explicitly. We know that because the horse died beside a pile of loose bricks.

And then at the end, when a lesser writer would have tried to drive his point home – look at this tragedy, at this terrible and monumental thing… THIS IS WHERE THE STRINGS COME IN – Heinz returns again to his perfectly brutal facts.

Money horses are insured. Insurance companies demand physical evidence. Even in the face of such awfulness, people still run to get out of the rain, and they leave dead horses next to piles of loose bricks. Life can become death so quickly, in only an hour and a quarter; it waits in something as small as a hole in the track. And it can happen even for horses with the limitless potential of Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

“Aw ----” someone said.

That was all they said.

That’s all W.C. Heinz said, too. The rest, he left up to us.

Chris Jones is a writer at large for Esquire and a contributor to Grantland.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.




10 comments

  1. posted July 19, 2011 at 11:18 am | permalink

    Hey Chris, do you have any thoughts on how verb tense impacts this story?

    Just messing around here, but what if you rewrote this:

    Down below 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 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.

    To this:

    Down below they roared for the rest, coming down the stretch now, but in the infield men ran toward the turn, ran toward the colt and the boy standing beside him, alone. A station wagon moved around the track toward them …

    Or the line that’s your favorite:

    They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks.

    To: They moved the curious back and the rain fell faster, and they moved the colt over to a pile of loose bricks.

    Even if I’d mastered the reporting and knew where I wanted this story to go, I would have been tempted to keep the tense consistent, and I’m wondering if that’s the wrong instinct. Seems that flattens these lines a little bit, or dulls the subtle urgency of this story.

  2. Chris Jones
    posted July 19, 2011 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    Hey Ben—

    That’s a good question. I can’t say that the verb tenses really struck me until you pointed them out. I think one of the qualities of the piece is its pace—it’s just a quick, immediate account, an arrow. And I think the tense actually helps that, because it seems more present, more as though it’s happening in front of us. Casting it all in past tense, the way you did in your edits, kind of makes it more dispassionate somehow, at least to my ear.

    It’s funny, that “There was a station wagon…” construction. Back when I was at the newspaper, we had a writing coach who went over our stories with us. At the time, I was fond of using the “It was Roger Clemens who put the game out of reach…” construction. The writing coach was like, Shouldn’t it just be, “Roger Clemens put the game out of reach…”

    I guess it should be, but I never gave up that construction, mostly because I just like how it sounds. Maybe that’s the best—and only—test for writing. Does it sound good to your ear?

  3. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm | permalink

    Hey, Ben and Chris, I wanted to let Chris weigh in first, since it’s his post, and I was curious to get his thoughts myself.

    Most of those verbs Ben edited in the Heinz story are still past tense, just a different kind — the imperfect. [OK, I deleted a boring section from this comment, realizing I was getting my schoolmarm geek on here.]

    I’m betting Heinz had to write the story in the past tense, but he wanted to convey action and reconstruct events as they happened in the moment. So he used a lot of “this and this and this were happening” language to set the scene then followed it up with simple past tense to clobber the reader. Look at the places where he uses the simple past tense (“suddenly he slowed,” “the colt toppled onto his left side”).

    I might be wrong, but it looks deliberate to me.

  4. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    And yes, I think Ben is right. The whole thing in plain past tense flattens it. It somehow takes the tension out.

  5. Chris Jones
    posted July 19, 2011 at 5:52 pm | permalink

    That was my second answer, Andrea.

    Also, I’m a huge fan of cereal. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  6. Benjamin R. Bombard
    posted July 19, 2011 at 6:21 pm | permalink

    I wondered the same thing as the first Ben. Reading the story, I was immediately struck by the verb tense and was rewriting it into the simple past tense as I read. I’m not a huge fan of the imperfect past, I guess it kind of works in this instance, and here’s why: The events–the horses moving to the post, moving slowly down the backstretch, cantering, walking–take place when “they” in the press box (as Chris points out, the indeterminate characterization in this piece is one of its great strengths) stop what they’re doing (here, Heinz switches from the past imperfect to the past perfect, “had stopped their working”) and start talking about Air Lift.
    But I don’t know, I think I agree with Ben’s misgivings about the tenses (and like Chris says, Ben: trust your own ears). I wonder how this piece might read in the simple present, whether it gains greater urgency and the “enough” that Chris revels in (and note how Heinz hammers the horse’s name in just after we’ve met his sire and mare and brother):
    They’re off well, although Air Lift is fifth. They move toward the first turn, and now Air Lift is fourth. They’re going into the turn, and now Air Lift is starting to go, third perhaps, when suddenly he slows, a horse stopping, and below in the stands you hear a sudden cry, as the rest leaves him, still trying to run but limping, his jockey — Dave Gorman — half falling, half sliding off.
    Written this way, it reads like the announcer calling the race and brings the reader into the event, places her in the stands.
    However, regardless of the tenses, I gotta tip my antique sombrero to Heinz for spilling such a gem onto the page “on deadline, on a typewriter, in a grandstand press box.” As Gare Joyce says about the story over at ESPN.com in an article called “The cult of ‘Death of a Racehorse’”http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=joyce/080303, “At the ends of another writer’s fingertips, there might not have even been a story, just a statement of fact.”
    Thanks for breaking this one down for us, Chris.

  7. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm | permalink

    1) Ben B.: Good observations, and thanks for the ESPN link. I hadn’t seen that. As far as writing in present tense — like Ben M.’s experiment with the past — it’s interesting to see what it does to the story.

    I could be wrong, but I’m guessing Heinz might not have been allowed to use present tense when writing for the Sun. So maybe using the imperfect was his way of getting a little closer to it.

    2) On another note: Jones, whatever cereal you have in your pantry, keep eating it.

  8. cmkearns
    posted July 20, 2011 at 9:13 am | permalink

    This was fascinating, and entertaining. Thanks, Chris. I’ve always loved the “loose bricks” description, too. It reminds me of the “low stone wall” in Ernie Pyle’s masterpiece about Capt. Waskow. Both are just amazing, and haunting, details–the kind you can’t forget.

  9. Nigel Duara
    posted August 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm | permalink

    To piggyback on Mr. Bombard’s comments, I also found the ending to have the ring of an announcer’s call, a trick that starts with a sentence that sounds like the paragraph that preceded it but ends with the reader perhaps hearing in in the voice of a racing announcer.

    “Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables,”

    – for me, it happened here —

    “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.”

  10. Pat Smith
    posted February 10, 2013 at 11:04 am | permalink

    Chris:
    Nice piece. I knew Heinz most of my life. He was my hero, when I was coming up in the newspaper business. The Jim Roach he mentioned became sports editor of the N.Y.Times. Bill Heinz was in every way straight out of the guide book for all raw reporters who wanted to the best. He was the best. I remember being with him at Floyd Patteron’s training camp before the his second fight with Ingmar Johansen. I watched the best reporter sports has ever seen, as he made his rounds, interviewing and joking with all the sparring partners, trainers and hangers on at that camp. Of course, what he wrote afterwards was brilliant. When I helped produce, and wrote, the SportsCentury series for ESPN, I nistsed that Heinze be interviewed about the 50 best athletes of the 20th century. His testimony was so good, we went back to him several times to his thoughts and memories of other great athletes. No one was better.

2 trackbacks

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