The Heart of the Matter

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Over at The Neiman Storyboard, Don Van Natta Jr. explains why Bill Nack's beautiful story, "Pure Gold" is so damn good.

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.”