From Every Derby, Bill Nack Found the Perfect Storyline

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Bill Nack with Secretariat | NYRA photo

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From the moment Justify (Scat Daddy) crossed the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, my thoughts have been about one thing–Bill Nack.

During my time in the editorial department at The Blood-Horse, whenever we didn't have a specific writer in mind for “The Final Turn” commentary in the Derby results issue, we simply turned to Bill.

It didn't matter who won, Bill would weave a fascinating tale about some connection to the winner or some angle to the running of the race.

In just 850 words, he would magnificently capture the essence of whatever picture he was trying to paint. Bill used words to create imagery.

Nack, the longtime writer for Sports Illustrated and regular contributor to The Blood-Horse, died just three weeks prior to the race he loved so dearly.

He and I would speak about the camaraderie among turf writers, the men and women who not only share a passion for writing but also a love for the horse.

As I have said so many times before, you can write about sports such as baseball or basketball without loving baseball or basketball players…but it would be tough to write about horse racing without loving horses.

Bill loved many sports, but none more than horse racing, which, like for many of us, spoke to his soul at a young age and never ceased to stir him to emotion the remainder of his days.

In the wake of the 2018 Derby, I wonder what Bill would have latched on to: the fact the colt was unraced at two; Bob Baffert and his place in racing history; Kenny Troutt and/or Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm…

Though the story would not have been due until sometime later on Sunday, Bill's modus operandi was to begin writing Saturday night and finish in the wee hours of Sunday. He never wanted to sleep on it, instead more comfortable putting his thoughts down while they were still fresh in his mind.

It always worked for Bill … well almost always.

A number of years ago, Bill's email popped into my inbox and I began reading his piece on that year's Derby.

It was always fun to be the first one to read a story, by any writer, but especially by Bill.

But as I read the story, I kept coming back to one section that didn't seem to flow as smoothly as Bill's copy normally did. For the first time, I knew I needed to call him to discuss the passage.

I was actually a bit nervous. How do you call the greatest wordsmith of our time and question his writing?

Bill and I were friends, but there is a unique relationship between an editor and a writer. It doesn't mean the editor is always right but it does mean the editor controls the process.

“Why don't you send me what you have in mind,” Bill calmly said from his hotel room in Louisville.

Five minutes later my phone rang. “I like what you suggested. Changed just a few words. See how it reads now,” he said.

A few months later, Bill was in Lexington, staying, as usual, as houseguest of Preston and Anita Madden. We had dinner.

“You know you improved that story,” Bill said. “I appreciate that.”

Well, Bill, a horse named Justify won the Derby. Unraced at two and still unbeaten. Gave his trainer five Derby wins.

You would have loved this story.

And by the way, Bill Nack, just by knowing you, just by listening to your tales, just by being caught up in your enthusiasm for the game…you improved my life.

 

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