Author Topic: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz  (Read 45093 times)

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jgmacg

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Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« on: June 14, 2006, 07:47:28 AM »
     In honor of The Jones Petition in Support of WC Heinz, I'm reposting this where everyone can read it. There is no better piece of deadline writing in any field, by anyone, anywhere, than this.

                                                                                  ***

     They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica, two year olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for a purse of four thousand dollars. They were moving slowly down the backstretch toward the gate, some of them cantering, others walking, and in the press box they had stopped their working or their kidding to watch, most of them interested in one horse.

     "Air Lift," Jim Roach said. "Full brother of Assault."

     Assault, who won the triple crown ... making this one too, by Bold Venture, himself a Derby winner, out of Igual, herself by the great Equipoise ... Great names in the breeding line ... and now the little guy making his first start, perhaps the start of another great career.

     They were off well, although Air Lift was fifth. They were moving toward the first turn, and now Air Lift was fourth. They were going into the turn, and now Air Lift was starting to go, third perhaps, when suddenly he slowed, a horse stopping, and below in the stands you could hear a sudden cry, as the rest left him, still trying to run but limping, his jockey -- Dave Gorman -- half falling, half sliding off.
 
     "He broke a leg!" somebody, holding binoculars to his eyes, shouted in the press box. "He broke a leg!"

     Down below they were roaring for the rest, coming down the stretch now, but in the infield men were running toward the turn, running toward the colt and the boy standing beside him, alone. There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance.

     "Gorman was crying like a baby," one of them, coming out of the jockey room, said. "He said he must have stepped in a hole, but you should have seen him crying."

     "It's his left front ankle," Dr. J.G. Catlett, the veterinarian, was saying. "It's a compound fracture; and I'm waiting for confirmation from Mr. Hirsch to destroy him."

     He was standing outside one of the stables beyond the backstretch, and he had just put in a call to Kentucky where Max Hirsch, the trainer, and Robert Kleber, the owner, are attending the yearling sales.

     "When will you do it?" one of them said.
 
    "Right as soon as I can," the doctor said. "As soon as I get confirmation. If it was an ordinary horse I'd done it right there."

     He walked across the road and around another barn to where they had the horse. The horse was still in the van, about twenty stable hands in dungarees and sweat-stained shirts, bare-headed or wearing old caps, standing around quietly and watching with Dr. M.A. Gilman, the assistant veterinarian.

     "We might as well get him out of the van," Catlett said, "before we give him the novocaine. It'll be a little better out in the air."

     The boy in the van with the colt led him out then, the colt limping, tossing his head a little, the blood running down and covering his left foreleg. When they saw him, standing there outside the van now, the boy holding him, they started talking softly.

     "Full brother of Assault." ... "It don't make no difference now. He's done." ... "But damn, what a grand little horse." ... "Aint he a horse?"

                                                                                                                                                       (cont.)
« Last Edit: June 16, 2006, 03:28:37 PM by jgmacg »

jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #1 on: June 14, 2006, 07:52:57 AM »
                                                                                                                                     (cont.)



     "It's a funny thing," Catlett said. "All the cripples that go out, they never break a leg. It always happens to a good-legged horse."

     A man, gray-haired and rather stout, wearing brown slacks and a blue shirt, walked up.

     "Then I better not send for the wagon yet?" the man said.

     "No," Catlett said. "Of course, you might just as well. Max Hirsch may say no, but I doubt it."

     "I don't know," the man said.

     "There'd be time in the morning," Catlett said.

     "But in this hot weather--" the man said.

     They had sponged off the colt, after they had given him the shot to deaden the pain, and now he stood, feeding quietly from some hay they had placed at his feet. In the distance you could hear the roar of the crowd in the grandstand, but beyond it and above it you could hear thunder and see the occasional flash of lightning.

     When Catlett came back the next time he was hurrying, nodding his head and waving his hands. Now the thunder was louder, the flashes of lightning brighter, and now rain was starting to fall.

     "All right," he said, shouting to Gilman. "Max Hirsch talked to Mr. Kleberg. We've got the confirmation."

     They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

"Aw ----" someone said.

     That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.
« Last Edit: June 14, 2006, 08:43:48 AM by jgmacg »


jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #2 on: June 14, 2006, 08:02:54 AM »

     For writers of any kind, but for sports writers especially, I recommend "What a Time it Was, The Best of WC Heinz on Sports", published by Da Capo Press, 2001. It's a softcover trade edition for only 16 bucks, and it includes "Death of a Racehorse", and the best of the best of Heinz. His newspaper and magazine work are the metric by which all the rest of us must be judged. It is indispensable, and offers a masters tutorial on the art and craft of fine writing for those willing to study it.




http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0306810433/qid=1150297455/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-2689591-7013766?s=books&v=glance&n=283155

Offline RedHotChiliPrepper

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #3 on: June 14, 2006, 02:24:14 PM »
This piece is what any writer should strive for in any writing, especially deadline writing. It's not about telling people what happened, it's about showing people what happened.

The color in that story, written amazingly on deadline, is something I'll strive to match for my entire, hopefully long, career. Not to get all sappy, but it's really an inspirational piece.
Chasing Cars

Offline Jones

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #4 on: June 14, 2006, 02:59:34 PM »
Now cut and paste your post and sign the petition, preppy.
Son of Bold Venture.

jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #5 on: June 14, 2006, 07:22:45 PM »
I think at some point it would be helpful to talk about how Heinz makes this little story work so wonderfully well. Feel free to chip in your thoughts.

Offline Canyonero!

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #6 on: June 14, 2006, 09:28:05 PM »
That was a truly amazing piece of writing. Thank you for posting it, jgmacg.
"You're reading The New York Times? But you don't live in New York!" - Homer Simpson

Offline Jones

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #7 on: June 14, 2006, 09:30:35 PM »
You sign the petition, too, shushy.
Son of Bold Venture.

jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #8 on: June 15, 2006, 02:39:52 AM »
That was a truly amazing piece of writing. Thank you for posting it, jgmacg.

You're welcome.

Offline daemon

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #9 on: June 15, 2006, 02:18:52 PM »
This piece is what any writer should strive for in any writing, especially deadline writing. It's not about telling people what happened, it's about showing people what happened.

The color in that story, written amazingly on deadline, is something I'll strive to match for my entire, hopefully long, career. Not to get all sappy, but it's really an inspirational piece.

But consider this:

What do you think would happen today if you were assigned to cover a race and you filed "Death of a Racehorse" on deadline?

(this is not a plagiarism question: we're assuming Death of a Racehorse hasn't been written)

My question is, does the story get into the paper?

Or does someone on the desk scratch his head and say, "What the fuck is this shit and where is your nut graph?"


Did Heinz write this as a column? Or was this his "gamer?"

jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #10 on: June 15, 2006, 02:44:49 PM »
This piece is what any writer should strive for in any writing, especially deadline writing. It's not about telling people what happened, it's about showing people what happened.

The color in that story, written amazingly on deadline, is something I'll strive to match for my entire, hopefully long, career. Not to get all sappy, but it's really an inspirational piece.

But consider this:

What do you think would happen today if you were assigned to cover a race and you filed "Death of a Racehorse" on deadline?

(this is not a plagiarism question: we're assuming Death of a Racehorse hasn't been written)

My question is, does the story get into the paper?

Or does someone on the desk scratch his head and say, "What the fuck is this shit and where is your nut graph?"


Did Heinz write this as a column? Or was this his "gamer?"

     D -

     This was a column. He wrote five of them a week for the New York Sun.

     The "gamer" in this case would probably have been filed by someone else. Most likely the Sun's racing writer; although a race like this - a $4000 purse for rookie two-year olds - might just have wound up as agate.

     Columns were a little different in 1949. There was less empty opinion, less bloviating - less "have a take and don't suck" - and a lot more narrative storytelling. Read the giants of that era - Heinz, Powers, Smith, Cannon, Graham, Runyon - and you'll see what I mean.

     Sadly, you may be right about how the desk would react if this were filed today.

     

Offline friend of the friendless

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #11 on: June 15, 2006, 06:27:05 PM »
Sirs, Madames,

I think mr daemon makes a good pt. This sort of came up at Poynter when John Lardner was held up as a model for writers--the fact is, in Lardner's case his story wouldn't have run. Logorrhea, purple prose, too much those-were-the-days. Heinz's DOAR would run today--easy to see what he'd do with Barbaro--but I'm sure it would look a helluva lot different--it would stand out like a sore thumb otherwise. Look, Hamlet is still a model of dramatic writing--but it is equally timeless and of its time. Stuff must work within the conventions of the times. DOAR is timeless at some levels, but of its time in others. Look at speechwriting: Ask Not and other Ted Sorenson classics are definitive stuff but coming out of a pol's mouth in 2006, well, you'd wonder what the hell he'd be doing.

YHS, etc
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Offline RedHotChiliPrepper

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #12 on: June 15, 2006, 07:59:50 PM »
Now cut and paste your post and sign the petition, preppy.

Sure thing, Slater. Done deal.
Chasing Cars

jgmacg

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #13 on: June 16, 2006, 11:14:18 AM »
Sirs, Madames,

I think mr daemon makes a good pt. This sort of came up at Poynter when John Lardner was held up as a model for writers--the fact is, in Lardner's case his story wouldn't have run. Logorrhea, purple prose, too much those-were-the-days. Heinz's DOAR would run today--easy to see what he'd do with Barbaro--but I'm sure it would look a helluva lot different--it would stand out like a sore thumb otherwise. Look, Hamlet is still a model of dramatic writing--but it is equally timeless and of its time. Stuff must work within the conventions of the times. DOAR is timeless at some levels, but of its time in others. Look at speechwriting: Ask Not and other Ted Sorenson classics are definitive stuff but coming out of a pol's mouth in 2006, well, you'd wonder what the hell he'd be doing.

YHS, etc

Monsieur DemiMiler -

      I agree to a point that we can't recapture the time in which the great work of the past was done; or simply ape the style of the greats in a different, later age. That doesn't mean, however, that they shouldn't still be taught.

      I think there's a lot in this piece architecturally and stylistically that bears remembering and understanding even, or perhaps especially, today.

     And I ask this in return - how important a tool is imitation in learning to write well?

     

Offline friend of the friendless

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Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #14 on: June 16, 2006, 01:44:38 PM »
Mr macg

I wonder if young writers might imitate the wrong things from this piece or at least not seize the right things.

Look at Death of a Heavyweight thread on WW. The writer started with a bomb. That would be like Death of a Racehore starting with them shooting the horse. It's the timing, structure and selection of detail that counts.

YHS, etc

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jgmacg

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Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #15 on: June 16, 2006, 01:50:24 PM »
Exactly!

That's why the village elders, such as we may be, must school the younglings on the ways and means of these things. I keep waiting for one of them to ask that very question.

     "How did he do it?"
« Last Edit: June 16, 2006, 03:35:11 PM by jgmacg »

Offline jaredk

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #16 on: June 16, 2006, 07:01:27 PM »
The piece is great because it treats a powerful story simply. He builds the story a word at a time, every word necessary in every sentence, every sentence built to persuade the reader to read the next. It's great because Heinz resists the all but irresistible temptation of melodrama. At the end, the poignancy of the son/brother allusions derives from the promise the same simple words offer at the start. All that, plus this: Heinz was there. He saw it, he heard it, he told it. There's no evidence he asked even one question. It's great reporting by a man who first recognized the story, got his ass out of the press box, paid attention, and went to his typewriter with the full maturity of a reporter who built his career on the idea that the story is the thing, not the storyteller.

One quibble with previous posts: perhaps the piece was done "on deadline." We don't know that from the reading. We do know that Heinz's paper, the Sun, was in 1949 an afternoon paper. Its deadlines likely gave him plenty of time to work on a piece about the fifth race of the day before.

jgmacg

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #17 on: June 18, 2006, 04:25:15 PM »
The piece is great because it treats a powerful story simply. He builds the story a word at a time, every word necessary in every sentence, every sentence built to persuade the reader to read the next. It's great because Heinz resists the all but irresistible temptation of melodrama. At the end, the poignancy of the son/brother allusions derives from the promise the same simple words offer at the start. All that, plus this: Heinz was there. He saw it, he heard it, he told it. There's no evidence he asked even one question. It's great reporting by a man who first recognized the story, got his ass out of the press box, paid attention, and went to his typewriter with the full maturity of a reporter who built his career on the idea that the story is the thing, not the storyteller.

One quibble with previous posts: perhaps the piece was done "on deadline." We don't know that from the reading. We do know that Heinz's paper, the Sun, was in 1949 an afternoon paper. Its deadlines likely gave him plenty of time to work on a piece about the fifth race of the day before.

Terrific technical analysis of the story jk. I guess the only quibble is over what constitutes a "deadline." How much time is plenty of time to write something this good?


SuperflySnuka

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #19 on: May 25, 2007, 10:01:09 AM »
Was watching Seabiscuit for the first time last night when this came to mind...this thread, to be exact. What a story. For a 23-year-old kid, shows just what can happen with pace and tempo of a story, over grand statements and wild opinion. THIS is what a column looks like, IMO.

So I'll bite... How'd he do it?

Offline jfs1000

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #20 on: May 25, 2007, 08:18:04 PM »
Boy, that's great writing. I jsut turned 30, but I may pick up that book. I have read osme of his stuff, but not this one.

I think we should all move towards that. Journalists today are too deadline driven (I know, coming from a PM). It' s an over abundance of facts, analysis and information. I love the Peter Gammons note columns, but there has to be a place for storytelling.

Sometimes, there is too much information in stories. Even good stories that are informative, but not chock full of info, sometimes falter on the facts.   DOAR would have been ruined if you packed it with too much info.

What happened if he wrote about how many horses die yearly? Just a quick fact. Or something like that, that would have fit, but would have ruined the story?

This story works because he re-created the scence, he made people feel like they were there, and made the reader care. Hell, I felt bad for the horse reading it many years later.

the story breathes. It was just a story about one horse, on one track, and one death.

Death in many ways is poetic because it is final. There is no coming back.  He captured death in the story, and that's hard to do.   

jgmacg

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #21 on: May 31, 2007, 08:08:49 AM »
Was watching Seabiscuit for the first time last night when this came to mind...this thread, to be exact. What a story. For a 23-year-old kid, shows just what can happen with pace and tempo of a story, over grand statements and wild opinion. THIS is what a column looks like, IMO.

So I'll bite... How'd he do it?


     There's so much going on here that's remarkable, let's just talk a little about story architecture.

     Check the meter and the sentence length at the beginning. And then at the end.

     Compare the sentence, "'Air Lift,' Jim Roach said. 'Full brother of Assault.'" to the last sentence in the piece.

     Compare the long sentence beginning "Assault, who won the triple crown..." to the last sentence in the piece.

     Notice the reiteration of the statement, "Full brother of Assault," in the middle of the piece.

     The column is built a little like a poem or concerto. Certain meters and phrases recur and repeat. Heinz knows going in how he wants the column to land, so he front loads the phrase "Full brother of Assault," then reinforces it again halfway along. By the time he strings together that last long sentence, with its inexorable drive, those now-familiar meters and phrases have the rhythm and power of music in them, and the story resolves, like a great song, on a chord that is not only completely satisfying, but at once surprising and inevitable. Hence the chill most people feel when reading it.
     
     This piece is a tiny, nearly perfect machine of art and engineering. There's a lot to learn here about story structure, and lyric, and what's possible in only a small space. Heinz learned a lot of that from Hemingway. Heinz's powers of observation and description and his matchless ear for dialogue are his own, of course, but he was a true student of Hemingway's work, and often reread him very closely in order to figure out exactly how a certain effect had been achieved.

     So maybe part of the lesson here is that to become better writers, we need to become better readers.
     

Offline sirvaliantbrown

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #22 on: August 23, 2007, 08:16:41 AM »
Was watching Seabiscuit for the first time last night when this came to mind...this thread, to be exact. What a story. For a 23-year-old kid, shows just what can happen with pace and tempo of a story, over grand statements and wild opinion. THIS is what a column looks like, IMO.

So I'll bite... How'd he do it?


     There's so much going on here that's remarkable, let's just talk a little about story architecture.

     Check the meter and the sentence length at the beginning. And then at the end.

     Compare the sentence, "'Air Lift,' Jim Roach said. 'Full brother of Assault.'" to the last sentence in the piece.

     Compare the long sentence beginning "Assault, who won the triple crown..." to the last sentence in the piece.

     Notice the reiteration of the statement, "Full brother of Assault," in the middle of the piece.

     The column is built a little like a poem or concerto. Certain meters and phrases recur and repeat. Heinz knows going in how he wants the column to land, so he front loads the phrase "Full brother of Assault," then reinforces it again halfway along. By the time he strings together that last long sentence, with its inexorable drive, those now-familiar meters and phrases have the rhythm and power of music in them, and the story resolves, like a great song, on a chord that is not only completely satisfying, but at once surprising and inevitable. Hence the chill most people feel when reading it.
    
     This piece is a tiny, nearly perfect machine of art and engineering. There's a lot to learn here about story structure, and lyric, and what's possible in only a small space. Heinz learned a lot of that from Hemingway. Heinz's powers of observation and description and his matchless ear for dialogue are his own, of course, but he was a true student of Hemingway's work, and often reread him very closely in order to figure out exactly how a certain effect had been achieved.

     So maybe part of the lesson here is that to become better writers, we need to become better readers.
    
Jg, just read the story - and your analysis - again. One question for you: why do you think the long, heavily-commad sentences at the beginning and the end work so well? Is it something more than the parallelism? (Is there something inherently effective about them?)

Offline amraeder

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #23 on: August 26, 2007, 12:31:49 AM »
I like the last sentence ".... Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assult." becuase it sounds just like talking about a nobel line. And that is, after all, what he was expected to be.
And I never would have thought of starting the piece by describing what's going on in the press box. But it works.
(for the record, if I repeated "full brother of Assult" like that in something I wrote SOMEONE would cut it out becuase "it's redundant." No one's willing to give me an extra word or two for voice. sigh...)

EDIT: Just finished reading it again, still awed by it. Makes me feel wanting as a writer.
« Last Edit: August 26, 2007, 12:48:25 AM by amraeder »

Offline Colton

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Re: Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz
« Reply #24 on: August 26, 2007, 02:36:28 AM »
Having read that, I feel so unworthy... just a tremendous piece of work.
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