BILL NACK: SECRETARIAT – THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION AND OTHER STORIES

Way back in 1975, a writer named William Nack published a book – Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. Some 35 years later he sat in a dark theatre in Washington DC and watched what Disney had done to his book and its hero.

Nack would later describe himself as “anxious” about how the movie would turn out. When the lights came back up, he was quite pleased. We’re guessing “relieved” might apply as well. In the upcoming weeks, we hope to feature an interview with Nack as we look to learn more about this amazing story.

For now, we can tell you this. Nack is played in the movie by actor Kevin Connolly who plays “E” on the HBO hit show Entourage. He has a cameo in the movie where, as an unidentified reporter, he asks a question at a press conference. The ironic part is that Nack’s standing next to the actor who is playing him when he gets his screen shots.

After the movie, we were comparing notes and talking about the incredible reaction people had to Secretariat’s performance and about how everybody who watched the race thought the pace was suicidal and the ultimate result bound for disaster. (More on the later, when we share Kent Hollingworth editorial from June 18, 1973.)

The movie didn’t even attempt to show the delirium that followed when Big Red crossed the finish line that spectacular 31 lengths in front of a devastated field. But, everybody seems to have a story about how his thrilling performance, and the first Triple Crown in 25 years, impacted them. Like the moon landing or the Kennedy assassination, if you saw it you remember exactly where you were and what your emotional response was.

Nack told us a story about Jack Nicklaus, the famous golfer, watching the race by himself in the family den at his home in Florida. Nicklaus was amazed to find himself on the floor in front of the television, fists pounding the floor and tears rolling down his face as he exhorted Secretariat down Belmont’s stretch. Nicklaus later told the story to well-known journalist and television personality Heywood Hale Broun.

Nicklaus (pictured in 1974) told “Woodie” he didn’t really know anything about racing, but he’d taken note of Big Red after the superstar was on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated the same week. He was perplexed as to why he had such a strong emotional reaction to a horse about which he knew so little.

Broun was sage telling Nicklaus this: You have spent your life seeking perfection, and what you witnessed was perfection.

Nack didn’t say how Nicklaus responded, but we wager he agreed.

The other story of note involved Pete Rozelle the long term commissioner of the National Football League. Rozelle is credited by most as being the father of the Super Bowl and the man that brought football to the forefront of professional sports. He was known for many things, but being “excitable” wasn’t one of them.

Rozelle was at Belmont Park that day watching the races in the Turf Club. As Secretariat was winning the Belmont and Triple Crown, Rozelle said he suddenly became aware of a hand on his leg. He wondered if someone had fallen down in all the excitement and was struggling to get up.

When he looked down, he saw a man holding his leg so he knew his senses were still working properly. Oddly, the man was standing on the floor as Rozelle was standing on the table cheering on Secretariat. According to Nack, Rozelle had no recollection of how he ended up there.

What a scene all of Belmont Park must have been during those famous 2 minutes and 24 seconds and what a scene it must have been just after and long into that hot June night.

The Secretariat movie doesn’t reveal this, but those who were there have great stories to tell. Between now and October when the film has it’s national release, we will share as many stories as we can. If you have one send it our way.

(Photo of Nack at Churchill Downs by Courtney Bearse/Laptop Heaven via Flickr)