When Swale won the Kentucky Derby, senior writer William Nack went, well, bananas. The natural reaction, one would think, of a man holding a winning ticket. But not in Nack's case. The outburst was the natural high of a man who'd picked the winner in his Derby preview story a full week earlier, in a year in which the experts had declared the race wide open. And Nack had picked the winner for the second straight year; in '83 it was Sunny's Halo.
"I'm not a handicapper," he says. "I can't handicap races because I don't have the intellectual energy or desire to do it." When he picked Sunny's Halo, Nack was simply convinced the colt would win, not only because of his past performances but also because Nack liked his pedigree and the fact that he had some speed. "I didn't feel I was going out on a limb at all," he says. "I mean, here was a horse who walked around the shed after a work or a gallop with his neck bowed, and you could see the whites of his eyes. He looked fit."
Nack also loved the way Swale looked. He does admit, however, that when he got to the last paragraph of this year's preview he sat at his typewriter for an hour and a half, reading the Racing Form, but "I just kept saying to myself, 'This is the horse.' Ten or 15 others could've won; you could've made a case for every one of them. But I picked Swale because Woody Stephens is the greatest living trainer, and I thought he had the horse right. He also had the hungriest rider on his back."
That was Laffit Pincay Jr., who, going into his 11th Derby, had yet to ride a winner.
"The biggest shock," said Nack, "was Althea finishing 19th. The second-biggest shock was Coax Me Chad finishing second." Coax Me Chad was what Nack calls his Twin Spires horse, which is the one he is sure has no chance. Every racing writer knows that creeping dread when he thinks, "My God, what if Glue Factory wins? I've no quotes. I've no anecdotes." Nack came up with a solution to this years ago. If Glue Factory won, he would go up on the roof between the twin spires of Churchill Downs and throw himself off.
But those who know Nack's work are certain that if ever his Twin Spires horse wins the Derby, Nack won't head for the roof. He'll go straight to the winner's circle, and he'll get it all—background, anecdotes, quotes, human interest stuff. Then he'll sit down and write a first-rate story. You might say he has a knack for it.