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William Nack, the esteemed thoroughbred-racing writer from Sports Illustrated whose book about Secretariat paved the way for the popular 2010 film about the legendary Triple Crown winner, has died. He was 77.
Nack died Friday at his Washington home from complications associated with cancer, his family announced.
Nack spent 23 years at SI through 2001, then penned freelance articles for ESPN, GQ and others. He received seven Eclipse Awards for excellence in writing about horse racing, the first in 1978, the last in 2003.
“He stands among the best sportswriters in the history of the genre, and in many ways, among the best writers of any kind,” SI senior writer Tim Layden wrote in a tribute piece. “When he stopped typing, he was a giant personality, full of endless good charm, disarmingly well-read and all times, given to entertain.”
In 1973, Secretariat was the first horse to break the two-minute mark in winning the Kentucky Derby, then became the first Triple Crown champion since Citation in 1948 when he captured the Belmont Stakes by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths.
Nack’s 1975 book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, was adapted by screenwriter Mike Rich for the Randall Wallace film at Disney that starred Diane Lane and John Malkovich. The author appeared in the movie as a reporter and served as a consultant as well.
“We are very saddened to learn of Bill’s passing,” representatives from the Secretariat team, including jockey Ron Turcotte, said in a statement. “He was as much a part of the Secretariat story as anyone, and his book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, remains the benchmark for excellence in equine journalism.
“Bill was a master storyteller whose incredible talent was only matched by his vast knowledge in a diverse spectrum of interests including film and entertainment, poetry and literature, history, politics and of course his favorite subject — horse racing.”
Secretariat is widely considered the greatest thoroughbred in the history of horse racing, and on ESPN’s 1999 list of the top 50 North American athletes of the 20th century, he was ranked No. 35.
Raised in Skokie, Illinois, Nack developed his love for horse racing when he cleaned stalls owned by a neighbor. He attended the University of Illinois, where he became friends with Roger Ebert, then served two years in the U.S. Army, including a stint in Vietnam.
After his discharge, Nack landed a job at the Long Island newspaper Newsday. He began covering local politics before switching to sports during his 11-year stay there.
Layden noted that Nack’s first favorite horse was 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps.
An article that Nack wrote about Rocky Marciano served as the basis of a 1999 MGM telefilm that starred Jon Favreau as the famed undefeated boxer.
Last year, he was awarded the 2017 PEN/ESPN America Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing.
Survivors include his wife, Carolyne, four children and six grandchildren.