Pure Heart

Thirty years ago this week—on 4 June 1990—one of the most memorable pieces on sports was published. It appeared in Sports Illustrated.

William Nack wrote it. In 1973 Nack had covered Secretariat’s glorious run to the Triple Crown and written the definitive biography of the horse. In June 1990 Nack put together a long piece after the horse died the previous autumn. I remember reading it in Baltimore, picking up my dad’s copy in one of those transitory interludes between a term at college in New Hampshire and heading to a job in California. I picked it up because Lenny Dykstra of my beloved Phillies was on the cover and discovered a magical piece.

Some images have always stuck with me. I loved the lede, about how after he died, they discovered that Secretariat’s heart was twice the average size of a thoroughbred. Nack recapitulated the highlights of Secretariat’s career (who still owns, nearly forty years later, the record time for all three Triple Crown races), but it was as much about himself and what he saw and felt back in 1973. Nack talked about near fistfights in press boxes, about how Secretariat playfully grabbed his notebook in the barn stall, about a pigeon feather caught in his whiskers one afternoon.

But what I have always recalled was Nack’s ending. He described being in a hotel in Lexington, Kentucky when he heard the news that Secretariat had died. As someone who was twenty-one, invincible to the world, I was struck hard by Nack’s last sentence: “Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.”


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