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“Why’s this so good?” No. 76: William Nack and “Pure Heart”

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I still remember where I was—sitting in a dive bar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trying to tune out the noise from the beach bums and a jukebox blaring Madonna and the Bangles—when I read these words:

Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular….

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Van Natta

And I still remember how I felt as I read the words—exhilarated and chastened. At the time, I was a 25-year-old reporter doing grunt work for little pay in the Broward bureau of the Miami Herald, writing about fires, Medicare scams and city commission meetings.

….Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Kentucky, where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.

Perfect. After reading that opening paragraph—and the entire piece, “Pure Heart,” published in the June 4, 1990, edition of Sports Illustrated—I knew two things: I’d never in my life write anything that spectacular. And I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying.

William Nack’s remarkable story affirmed not only my career choice but also, at the time, my favorite hobby. Back then, I was a weekend horseplayer or, more precisely, a fool that the horses usually played. In a manic manner with a few equally manic pals, I blew too many paychecks and sun-washed weekend afternoons at Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, pushing the few dollars I had through tellers’ betting windows. I was chasing what then seemed to be a mid-sized fortune, a cashed trifecta ticket that’d pay a few hundred bucks. Looking back on those days, there were many torn tickets, hurled programs, broken dates and heartbreaking photo finishes. At least the beer was always cold.

Back then, whenever I saw Nack’s byline in Sports Illustrated, I knew what followed would be special, maybe even monumental. From the age of 8, I have been a faithful reader of SI. When my first book was excerpted in its pages on March 23, 2003, it was one of the best days of my life. My all-time SI lineup is Frank Deford, Mark Kram, Franz Lidz, Richard Hoffer, Leigh Montville, Rick Reilly, Gary Smith and S.L. Price.

Batting cleanup is William Nack.

He’s an ex-Newsday reporter who jumped to sports—turf writing, first—after standing on a desk during a boozy office Christmas party in 1971 and impressing an editor by ticking off the name of every Kentucky Derby winner from 1875. As a party trick, he’d recite every golden word of the last page of The Great Gatsby (in Spanish, too). After joining SI in 1978, he wrote revealing profiles of boxers like Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. Nack was the rare poet with an investigative reporter’s zeal for digging; his work told you things you didn’t know, written in a humane and graceful way. He wrote about the hard subjects with a light touch. He’s now 72 years old, lives in Washington, D.C., and writes, on occasion, for ESPN, where I also work (technically, we’re colleagues—imagine that).

A writer needs a lot of confidence and discipline to begin a story the way Nack begins “Pure Heart.” It isn’t even until the fourth paragraph that Nack identifies the horse as Secretariat, “Bold Ruler’s greatest son.”

The opening paragraph is so detached and clinical that I caught myself wondering whether Nack had witnessed the things he describes or whether he even cared much about them. The nameless horse is led by an unidentified person (a groom? a veterinarian? we can only guess) “haltingly” into a van. There, an unnamed person injects a needle into the horse’s jugular. Writers are taught very early on to fortify their first few sentences with names, details, voice, color, especially if we want any chance to win over the reader. Details are gold and the better the details, the better the story. Good writers also try not to lean on adverbs; they’re often a sentence’s crutches. Nack ignores both maxims here.

The aural description of the stallion’s collapse—“there was a crash”—is the hint that the scene was described to Nack by someone who had only heard it. An anonymous driver “trucks” the horse’s body from this unnamed place. Nack is simultaneously vague and exacting, creating an uneasy vibe of tension and mystery. The anonymity is done on purpose; it doesn’t really matter who is doing these things. More important is what is being done to that horse. The van ends up in Lexington, Ky., where, finally, a man with a name—Dr. Thomas Swerczek—awaits. He has a job to do, a necropsy to conduct. Dr. Swerczek is hardly a household name so Nack drops the doctor’s bio, like a boulder, on the back end of a sentence.

No matter. The payoff is the opening paragraph’s perfectly crafted final sentence: All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.

This tells you something you might have assumed about the Triple Crown champion but didn’t know for sure until now. And this fact is made even more amazing when you consider the writer. Because Nack is a man who spent every morning parked outside Secretariat’s stall as the horse made his glorious Triple Crown run in the spring of 1973; a man who wrote a beautiful love letter of a book to the horse, published in 1975; a man who, despite the remote nature of those first four sentences, cares as much about this horse than any person on earth.

You might not know any of this history at first. By paragraph eight, however, you realize how personally invested was Nack in the wonder horse, from the beginning:

… how on that early morning in March of 1973 he had materialized out of the quickening blue darkness in the upper stretch at Belmont Park, his ears pinned back, running as fast as horses run; how he had lost the Wood Memorial and won the Derby, and how he had been bothered by a pigeon feather at Pimlico on the eve of the Preakness (at the end of this tale I would pluck the delicate mashed feather out of my wallet, like a picture of my kids, to pass around the car); how on the morning of the Belmont Stakes he had burst from the barn like a stud horse going to the breeding shed and had walked around the outdoor ring on his hind legs, pawing at the sky; how he had once grabbed my notebook and refused to give it back, and how he had seized a rake in his teeth and begun raking the shed; and, finally, I told about that magical, unforgettable instant, frozen now in time, when he had turned for home, appearing out of a dark drizzle at Woodbine, near Toronto, in the last race of his career, twelve in front and steam puffing from his nostrils as from a factory whistle, bounding like some mythical beast out of Greek lore.

Sitting at that bar 23 years ago drinking a Rolling Rock, the parenthetical pigeon feather as souvenir got me; it gets me still. How many writers keep a memento of the subject of a story pressed into their wallets? And it happens to be a mashed pigeon feather that tickled his subject’s nose? Nack isn’t just a great writer; he’s also cool.

At this early moment in the story, Nack chases away any reader’s lingering doubt about his affection for Secretariat by beginning the next paragraph with the word, “oh:”

Oh, I knew all the stories, 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 know the stories of my children. Knew them as I know 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. Woke up with them, brushed my aging teeth with them, grinned at them in the mirror. Horses have a way of getting inside of you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was loved and true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.

Nack was 32 years old when he met Secretariat. On a Monday afternoon in October 1989, Nack, now 48, ferries the reader to Stone Farm, just outside Paris, Ky. Leaning on the farm’s long fence, Nack sees the great horse, looking skinnier and a bit wobbly as he grazes, alone, down a hill. In 48 hours, Secretariat will be dead. As he waits for the arrival of a man to interview, Nack gazes silently at the stallion off in the distance, “for a full half hour.” He resists the urge to hop the fence and join his old friend. About this quiet interlude, Nack writes pure poetry:

The gift of reverie is a blessing divine, and it is conferred most abundantly on those who lie in hammocks or drive alone in cars. Or lean on hillside fences in Kentucky. The mind swims, binding itself to whatever flotsam comes along, to old driftwood faces and voices of the past, to places and scenes once visited, to things not seen or done but only dreamed.         

Was it all just a dream? No. Those places and scenes are the very real venues of horse-racing’s springtime Triple Crown dash: Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park. The faces and voices of Secretariat and Nack’s tandem journey belong to a swirl of grooms, owners, jockeys, horseplayers. Nack’s fate was bound up with Secretariat’s in a profound way rarely described in the pages of a magazine. Beginning on March 10, 1973, armed with a notebook, Nack is perched outside Secretariat’s stable every morning at 7 a.m. sharp, missing only one wake-up call, for an Easter egg hunt. Among Nack’s jotted notes, the horse is never called Secretariat; he’s “Red,” the nickname given him by a groom named Eddie Sweat.

Nack knows these private hours with Red are special, long before Secretariat does the work to guarantee they’ll be remembered by anyone else as special. “I remember wishing those days could breeze on forever—the mornings over coffee and doughnuts at the truck outside the barn, the hours spent watching the red colt walk to the track and gallop once around, the days absorbing the rhythms of the life around the horse,” Nack writes. “I had been following racehorses since I was twelve, back in the days of Native Dancer, and now I was an observer on an odyssey, a quest for the Triple Crown.”

Red isn’t just faster than his peers; he’s funnier, too. A born prankster and a true ham, writes Nack, “the most engaging character in the barn,” paying no mind to a roan stable pony nursing “an unrequited love affair” with Red.

For readers unfamiliar with the allure of horse racing, the game’s appeal becomes understandable, perhaps even irresistible, as Nack describes riding an unnamed filly as a boy:

I had ridden horses during my youth in Morton Grove, Illinois, and I remember one summer I took a little black bullet of a thoroughbred filly out of the barn and walked her to the track that rimmed the polo field across Golf Road. I had been to the races a few times, had seen the jockeys ride, and I wanted to feel what it was like. So I hitched up my stirrups and galloped her around the east turn, standing straight up. Coming off the turn, I dropped into a crouch and clucked to her. She took off like a sprinter leaving the blocks – swoooosh! – and the wind started whipping my eyes. I could feel the tears streaming down my face, and then I looked down and saw her knees pumping like pistons. I didn’t think she would make the second turn, the woods were looming ahead, big trees coming up, and so I leaned a little to the left and she made the turn before she started pulling up. No car ever took me on a ride like that. And no roller coaster, either. Running loose, without rails, she gave me the wildest, most thrilling ride I ever had.

And there was nothing like the ride that Secretariat gave me in the twelve weeks from the Bay Shore through the Belmont Stakes.

Nack hitches up your stirrups and then—swoooosh!—gallops you along for the heart-thumping, 12-week ride. Even if you had read Nack’s book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, the glittering prose of “Pure Heart” puts you right back in the barn, on the rail and down the homestretch. Nack makes you feel every moment, every emotion, even an older man’s thrill at falling, with a teenager’s passion, helplessly in love. To hell with being unbiased or detached; this is a narrator rooting like a madman for a thoroughbred that belongs as much to him as to every $2 bettor. If Secretariat wins, Nack wins, too, though it isn’t cash at the betting windows. No, he wins a great story. A writer knows: Nothing is more valuable than a great story belonging only to you.

By the time Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, you’re rooting for the horse right along with Nack, seemingly close enough to bear-hug him near the winner’s circle. And when Secretariat captures the Triple Crown, stretching his impossible Belmont Stakes lead to 25, 26, 27 lengths, Nack has made sure you’ve bought into the super-horse’s invincibility. At this moment in the story, even during my 20th or so reading of “Pure Heart” on a recent languid Sunday afternoon, my pulse quickens. I can barely breathe.

Moments after Secretariat crosses the finish line, all alone, Nack writes, “I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts and there yielded a part of myself to that horse forever.” Sitting on that stool in that beach bar, I yielded a part of myself, too.

Fast-forward 16 years from that magical Belmont afternoon to one of Secretariat’s last, just outside Paris, Ky. Naturally, Nack is there at Stone Farm, gazing for those long moments at Red, and you know where this is heading. Secretariat is suffering from laminitis, a life-threatening hoof disease. That night, Nack calls a dozen friends and prepares them for the inevitable. Two days later, Nack is back in Lexington when he sees the red blinking message light on his hotel room phone. “I knew,” he writes. “I walked around the room. Out the door and down the hall. Back into the room. Out the door and around the block. Back into the room. Out the door and down to the lobby. Back into the room. I called sometime after noon. ‘Claiborne Farm called,’ said the message operator.”

After finally getting the news confirmed—he didn’t, mercifully, witness Red’s final moments described in the opening paragraph of “Pure Heart,” we now realize—William Nack drops himself to the hotel room floor, “feeling like a very old and tired man of forty-eight, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.”

No one will ever write a lovelier eulogy for a horse. Or for his own youth.

Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative reporter at ESPN who writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Prior to that, he worked for 16 years at the New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams and was posted in the Times‘ London, Washington and Miami bureaus. He is the author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush, and Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, which will be published in paperback in May. He is now writing a book about the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal with his former Times colleague Sarah Lyall. He lives in Miami with his wife, Lizette Alvarez, the Times‘ Miami bureau chief, and their two daughters.

For our “Why’s this so good?” archives, go here.




6 comments

  1. Amy
    posted April 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm | permalink

    I love this article — thanks so much for writing this. I know ‘Pure Heart’ well. I remember having chills throughout the piece and tears by the time I finished.

  2. Rachel Nack
    posted April 24, 2013 at 6:18 am | permalink

    Thank you for writing this story about my dad’s epic journey with Secretariat.

    It was fun to revisit with my “big brother”, and recall the high levels of passion and enthusiasm dad had during this time.

    He is as beautiful of a man as he is an eloquent writer. He and Secretariat made a great team.

    Rachel Nack

  3. David Aldridge
    posted April 26, 2013 at 7:25 am | permalink

    I can’t tell you how many times I go back and read “Pure Heart,” one of my all-time favorite pieces, by one of my all-time favorite writers.

  4. ECG
    posted May 2, 2013 at 1:04 pm | permalink

    I once spoke to one of Secretariat’s trainers for a feature story and she felt much the same way about the passing of this legend of racing. The size of his heart was the first thing she mentioned to me.

  5. Margaret Wilson
    posted May 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    Mr. Van Atta, you have written a very insightful piece of prose, yourself.

  6. David Penguin
    posted May 30, 2014 at 11:42 am | permalink

    I’ve read “Pure Heart” and the book annually, right around Derby time. It’s the greatest piece of writing about horse racing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read — one of the greatest pieces of writing about ANYTHING I’ve ever read — and it pleases me a great deal to know that I’m not the only one who’s been so touched by Mr. Nack’s writing.

2 trackbacks

  1. [...] Don Van Natta Jr. on what makes William Nack “so good.” [...]

  2. by The Tapes: April 26 | TVFury on April 26, 2013 at 3:02 am

    [...] Don Van Natta Jr. takes a look at one of the most famous SI pieces ever, William Nack’s Pure [...]

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