It was vintage Bill Nack. There he was with John Veitch, the trainer for Calumet Farm, in that not quite well-known Louisville night spot, the Voom Voom Room, a couple of furlongs from the stable gate at Churchill Downs. It was 2 a.m., hazy blue smoke was clinging to the ceiling and the exotic—the bar's description, not ours—dancers looked about as tired as some of the claimers in the barns down the road. Suddenly from one of the stools at the bar came the stentorian tones of William Louis Nack reciting the last page of The Great Gatsby. Veitch countered with A. E. Housman and Nack parried with Yeats. The bartender, used to hearing the morning line but not those lines, stopped washing glasses and one of the dancers listened intently as Nack plunged on.
Nack, whose account of the record-breaking yearling sales at Lexington, Ky. begins on page 16, goes after stories the same way he approaches literature—enthusiastically. This has resulted in some harrowing experiences. There was, for example, the time he was covering the match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park. When Ruffian broke down on the backstretch shortly after leaving the starting gate, Nack leaped from a box near the finish line onto the track and began running. All he could think about was getting across the track and the infield to the far side to find out what had happened to Ruffian. "I was in the middle of the track," says Nack, "when I heard ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. I looked up and froze. Here came Foolish Pleasure, thundering down the stretch toward the finish. I didn't know whether to go forward or back. I had visions of the newspaper headlines: RUFFIAN BREAKS DOWN, NEWSPAPER REPORTER KILLED." Fortunately, Nack avoided Foolish Pleasure and was one of only two reporters—more than 100 covered the race—to view the injured filly close up.
At the time, Nack, a journalism graduate of the University of Illinois, was with the Long Island, N.Y. newspaper Newsday, which he had joined in 1968 after serving a year with the Army in Vietnam. He moved from the city desk to the horse-racing beat and eventually became a sports columnist before coming to SI last February. His exceptional prose had preceded him. In 1975 we excerpted portions of his highly praised book on Secretariat, Big Red of Meadow Stable. Last year his lyrical and thoughtful piece on Forego won an Eclipse Award.
The award was no surprise; Nack knows his horses as well as the language. He has taught equitation and, before college, he was a groom at Arlington Park. There he worked for trainer Bill Molter, and the star of the stable was Round Table, the Horse of the Year in 1958. In the tack room behind Round Table's stall, Nack used to practice his jockey's crouch on a wooden horse. One day he had a friend strike a stirrup with a screwdriver to simulate the bell signaling the opening of a starting gate. "The next thing I know, Round Table's front hooves are on top of the stall," Nack said. "He heard the clang and he was snorting and rearing, ready to go. I thought I was going to be fired for getting him upset. It was very embarrassing."
Bill wasn't fired, and obviously his days—and nights—of the Round Table have enhanced his journalistic knack.
NACK: HE GROOMED HIMSELF FOR THE JOB