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The Triple Crown winner and the writer

Penny Chenery and William Nack attend the "Secretariat"

Penny Chenery and William Nack attend the "Secretariat" premiere after party in Hollywood, California. (Sept. 30, 2010) Credit: Michael Caulfield

Each morning in the spring of 1972, Bill Nack would rise in the darkness, climb into his rattling green Toyota and drive from Huntington to Belmont Park.

There, Newsday's racing writer would look in on the big chestnut who was rapidly gaining attention as a 2-year-old, talk to the Meadow Stable groom, Eddie Sweat, and return there at the end of the day.

"I was part of the furniture at that barn," he said recently.

And when Secretariat went for a training gallop, Nack was watching.

"He had the fastest workouts of any horse I have ever seen," he recalled. "He'd break records in the morning. He'd run the same time in a workout that another horse would run in a race in the afternoon. . . . This horse was doing things we had never seen before."

Nack's fate became inextricably linked to Secretariat's. He went on to write a book about him and for years afterward chronicled the life and career of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Along with owner Penny Chenery, trainer Lucien Lauren and jockey Ron Turcotte, he was forever touched by the greatness of the horse.

"He was like a part of my family," said Nack, who left Newsday in 1979 to work for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and now is a freelance author in Washington, D.C., working on a book about the Civil War.

Secretariat first had come to Nack's attention when he was competing at the Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York, garnering the 2-year-old Horse of the Year title. "I knew right away that this was someone special," he said.

But Nack maintained his journalistic skepticism. "I had serious doubts about whether he would win the Triple Crown," he said. "He was too heavy in front and he would come crashing down on the track when he ran. I didn't know if he would be able to stand up to the force of it."

Secretariat turned 3 and kept winning, and Nack kept writing. At the urging of a Newsday colleague, he began writing the book: "Big Red of Meadow Stable," which later became a basis for the 2010 Disney movie, "Secretariat." The publisher, Arthur Fields, knew nothing about horses, but was enthralled with Secretariat's story. He told Nack that if the horse won the Triple Crown, he would publish the book.

"That was three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Then he runs in the Wood Memorial, and ran horribly and came in third because they later found he had an abscess in his mouth. But Arthur calls me on Monday and says, 'Don't worry, he'll win the Triple Crown.' I started laughing."

Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Then, back at Belmont, Lauren began to prepare him for the mile-and-a-half "Test of Champions" that is longest of the three races and often the nemesis of Triple Crown hopefuls.

Contrary to trainers who might go easy on their horses after five long weeks of campaigning, Lauren put Secretariat through grueling workouts.

"He had this slow metabolism and if you didn't work him hard and fast, he'd run sluggishly," Nack recalled. "He needed those hard workouts."

In the end, as any race fan knows, Secretariat blew away the Belmont field by an unprecedented 31 lengths.

He continued his winning form as a 4-year-old, and was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. When Nack covered the Derby, he would visit him there until "Big Red" died at 19.

"I used to bring the kids out to see him. It was as though one of my children had gone off to college," said Nack. "He represented a part of my life that was very happy and complete, and he gave me the chance to write a book. . . . I really loved the horse."

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