Week Twelve: “Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand and “Pure Heart” by William Nack




It’s Derby Week ! Let’s look at some award-winning sports writing.


“Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand



“It was the 1930’s. The lives of three vastly different men had come to an intersection, and their crowded hour had begun. The improbable partnership they formed would turn a battered little horse into one of the century’s most celebrated popular heroes.”

Here is the story of of a knock-kneed little horse named Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. The piece was published in American Heritage Magazine and won an Eclipse Award. Enjoy!

“Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand


A bit about Laura Hillenbrand . . .

Laura Hillenbrand is an American author of books and magazine articles. Her two best-selling nonfiction books, Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, have sold over 13 million copies, and each was adapted for film.


Hillenbrand with Bronze Sea, a direct descendent of Seabiscuit

For Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001. She first told the story through an essay, “Four Good Legs Between Us”, that was published in American Heritage magazine, and the feedback was positive, so she decided to proceed with a full-length book. The book received positive reviews for the storytelling and research. It was made into the Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit (2003).

Both books were written after she fell ill in college, barring her from completing her degree. She told that story in an award-winning essay, A Sudden Illness, which was published in The New Yorker in 2003.

Her writing style belongs to a new school of nonfiction writers, who come after the New Journalism, focusing more on the story than a literary prose style:



“Pure Heart” by William Nack




The author William Nack is considered royalty in the realm of thoroughbred racing journalism.
As we start a new bid for the Triple Crown, let’s read Nack’s classic, evocative, and deeply personal portrait of the greatest of racing’s champions, Secretariat.
It is a foundational piece of sports writing. The Sports Illustrated issue date was June 4, 1990. “Here, as California Chrome makes a bid for the 2014 Triple Crown, is William Nack’s evocative, deeply personal portrait of the greatest of racing’s champions.”

“Oh, I knew all the stories, knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm. Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life. Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message . . .Horses have a way of getting inside you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.”

Here is “Pure Heart,” by William Nack.



William  Nack and others remember Secretariat and discuss the making of the movie  which honors him.


A bit about William Nack . . .


“In 1971, William Nack was an environmental writer at Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. At a particularly festive office Christmas party that year, Nack stood on a table and recited the name of every Kentucky Derby winner, a list that stretched back to 1875. The paper’s sports editor was so impressed that Nack was soon asked to be a horse racing writer.

The following June, he went to Belmont Park to visit Riva Ridge, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, and was pulled aside by exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney, who suggested Nack meet Ridge’s stablemate. “You wanna see the best-lookin’ 2-year-old you’ve ever seen?” he asked.”   (from Sports Illustrated)


Thus was Nack introduced to Secretariat.


Read the full back story here


Other writing to check out:

Red Smith on Willy Shoemacher


Did you know . . .

. . .that the author William Faulkner once covered the Kentucky Derby?

“On May 16, 1955, Sports Illustrated ran an article entitled “Kentucky: May: Saturday.” It was about the 81st running of the Kentucky Derby, and it was written by none other than William Faulkner.FaulknerDerby
The single page of neatly typed prose had no punctuation. No commas. No periods. No capital letters. Just words strung together: “this saw boone the bluegrass the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave …”
The Derby was Faulkner’s second assignment for Sports Illustrated, which had debuted the previous year. In January 1955, the magazine published an An Innocent at Rinkside, in which Faulkner wrote of watching his first hockey game: “It was filled with motion, speed. … It seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”.
That spring, Sports Illustrated sent Faulkner to Louisville to record his impressions of Derby Day and the days leading up to it.”


And this from The Guardian: :Seabiscuit VS War Admiral: the horse race That Stopped the Nation:




Be sure to check out our post “Horse racing: The Basic Facts” for great rookie info and some excellent vintage video clips. And in our Facebook group, enjoy member comments and listen to an authentic radio broadcast from the day Seabiscuit won at Santa Anita!