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Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by jgmacg, Jun 14, 2006.

  1. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    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?"

  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz


    "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.
  3. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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.

  4. Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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.
  5. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    Now cut and paste your post and sign the petition, preppy.
  6. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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.
  7. Canyonero!

    Canyonero! Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    That was a truly amazing piece of writing. Thank you for posting it, jgmacg.
  8. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    You sign the petition, too, shushy.
  9. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    You're welcome.
  10. daemon

    daemon Well-Known Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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?"
  11. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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.
  12. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    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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