No sooner had Temperence Hill put his nose across the finish line to win the Belmont Stakes, the final Triple Crown race, last spring, than Senior Writer William Leggett started watching the 2-year-old races in preparation for this year's long run to the Kentucky Derby. Last week, with the 2-year-olds now 3-year-olds, Leggett's pre-Derby peregrinations took him to Santa Anita in California for the San Vicente Stakes (page 58). "It's like waking up in a strange attic and pulling things out of a trunk," says Leggett. "You might come up with a Seattle Slew, or you might get a Great Redeemer." (Great Redeemer was a long shot who finished dead last in the 1979 Derby.)
Leggett has been with SI since 1956, has covered horse racing full time since 1976 and has yet to tout a Great Redeemer. After all, he has had a lot of experience watching horses, fast and slow (after the track announcer shouts "They're off!" Bill will invariably wryly mutter, "Most of them"). He was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where one of his first jobs was as a combination car-parker and tout-sheet peddler at the track.
He has gone to the races ever since, seeming to materialize out of the predawn fog on the backstretch. His pace is unhurried and his voice so soft one almost has to strain to hear him. This last trait is a special advantage in the madness of Derby Week, when hordes of reporters—last year Churchill Downs issued 1,400 press credentials—hang around the trainers. It's nearly impossible to get quotes that aren't recorded by 12 other people, but a person being interviewed in a whisper is unlikely to bellow his answer. SI's Demmie Stathoplos, who often assists Leggett on the racing beat, says, "I have to be practically glued to his side to hear what he and the person being interviewed are saying. In fact, it took me about two years to figure out how Leggett gets his information. First of all, he never appears to be working. This is deceptive—he is a master of the interview. Rather than approach a trainer directly, Bill will sort of drift to the man's side and stand there, arms crossed, an unconcerned look on his face. You have to know him well to realize he's asking questions. He has an uncanny ability to talk without moving his lips."
Leggett is as enigmatic at play as he is at work. Over the years he has been known to wager a dollar or two on the outcome of a race, and even to show a profit on his investment. But in 1977, when Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown, Bill found himself in the throes of a losing streak that just wouldn't quit. Tension among other staffers at the Derby that year was alleviated considerably by his efforts to change his luck, but to this day we do not know whether he really gave a groundkeeper $5 to bury a pair of his socks in the Churchill Downs infield.
February 23, 1981
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