Sometimes, you just know when you're on to something big.
It could be a breakout race for a horse that had a better chance of breaking out of his stall. It could be the lightbulb that tells you what you want to make of yourself in life. Perhaps it's a chance encounter with an old friend, or telling a story that keeps getting better with time. Sometimes, it's seeing the reaction to that story.
For Joe, "Finding Charley" was all of these things.
The story, published in in the Daily Racing Form on November 9, 2013, was nearly a decade in the making, starting on a gloomy evening in the summer of 2004 at Great Lakes Downs when a rank gelding named Royal Charley won a four-furlong maiden claimer for Joe's grandpa.
The race was forgotten as quickly as it was run for most, but for Joe, it was a defining moment in his eventual decision to write about horse racing for a living.
This story follows the horse and writer from the highs of entering the winners' circle with your loved ones to the lows of watching it fade away piece-by-piece. When they came face-to-face again after a long separation, the writer not only found a key link to his past he thought was long gone, but made a new friend who gets to write the rest of Charley's story.
The piece took a year and a half to write, going through several drafts and dozens of phone calls to track down all the key players in Charley's story. Bits and pieces were written and refined in restaurants and on park benches, with many 3 a.m. sessions re-writing the same paragraph until it was right.
It all paid off in the way it was received by readers, who related to their own stories of small-track life, off-track Thoroughbreds, and how they got into the sport.
"Finding Charley" received critical acclaim as well, earning an honorable mention for the 2013 Media Eclipse Award, the highest honor in North American Turf writing. The story was one of two pieces selected for an honorable mention behind the winner, putting it in at least the top three among a record 67 entries.
What readers said about "Finding Charley"
“An absolute triumph. And - yes - I cried.”
- @MollyJoRosen, Twitter
"There may not be a more perfectly written piece of work that portrays why I love the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Joe you've outdone yourself this time! If you need a good note to end your week on - make sure to read this!”
- Leah Alessandroni, Facebook
“Thanks for the tears so early in the morning-Now I have to reapply my mascara! So glad you found Charley & he's doing great!”
- @StandardbredGal, Twitter
“One of my fave articles of the year!”
- @Pullthepocket, Twitter
“The writing is lovely and evocative....really created a sense of nostalgia for all that was lost. I would love to read more from Joe Nevills. Good luck Charley!”
- k k, DRF website comment
- Vinod Jhangimal, DRF website comment
“I can’t get over how much I love this story. It’ll stick w/me forever.”
- @JenRoytz, Twitter
“I read this and cried like a fool.”
- Linda Broussard, Facebook
“Wow! DRF really stepping up its quality of writing here...
“Reminds me of the great John McPhee piece about QH racing at Ruidoso in the New Yorker 3 or 4 decades back, an article that, I believe, formed the basis of Casey's Shadow (the horse racing movie with Walter Matthau).
“It is that well written and touching.. May have the basis of a film here.”
- M, DRF website comment
“This was one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read. Awesome job!”
- @HorseRacingKK, Twitter
“I LOVE this story! Thank you for writing it.”
- Kathryn Baker, DRF website comment
“Really enjoyed the story, Joe. An excellent work that had me sad when it was over. Well done!”
- @TraversMan, Twitter
“A story that strikes a deep chord in all of us- wonderful writing- heartfelt”
- @neighsavers, Twitter
“Not only is this about #horseracing, this is a story, real #writing, which is rare enough in today's world by the standards of many. I'm saving a link to it in my email and hope it never goes defunct. Love this. Good to see some press for #Michigan too!”
- silver_charm, DRF website comment