A little more than two years ago when he penned a touching letter to his colleagues, fresh from surgery to remove one of his kidneys and still dealing with the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, Bill Mooney wasn’t about to let the circumstances get him down.
Mooney faced his fight with cancer with the same determination, thoroughness and perseverance that helped him win two Eclipse Awards for his writing. The battle continues today, at Mooney’s home in Lexington, an amazing feat considering the diagnosis handed down more than two years ago.
Mooney would be the first to let his friends and colleagues know he doesn’t deserve the attention he’s received. When contacted Friday afternoon the first words from his mouth were “I’m embarrassed to no end, but it’s not difficult to notice that maybe all the good vides going Mooney’s way have improved his quality of life and most certainly provided moments of peace, laughter, joy and reflection for the well-respected racing historian.
On multiple occasions this fall and winter Mooney reached out to his colleagues in the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters, who bestowed him the Walter Haight Award for career excellence in Turf writing in 2012. The notes came directly from the NTWAB and often provided an update on Mooney’s health but more importantly they informed everyone about his outlook on life.
One such note popped into NTWAB members’ email inboxes Dec. 8, along with a photo of Mooney flashing two thumbs up.
“I am back in the hospital again -- St. Joseph's in Lexington, to be exact. I thought you might let my fellow turf writers know. My friend, Tom Tobin, sent you a photo this morning which pretty much details the damage. I had cataract surgery on my left eye on Tuesday afternoon, and then took a bad fall onto the right side of my face on Tuesday night. My doctors have recently discovered that when they removed the cancer tumor in my lower back muscle this past August, they did nerve damage to my thighs, which has weakened them considerably. That's why I keep falling (17 times in the past month). The cataract situation also has a connection to my chemo treatments It all constitutes one huge pain in the butt, but during the past two years I've dealt with worse.”
Another followed nine days later, a forward of an email with “HO! HO! HO!” in the subject line. No photos this time, but if you know Bill (and even if you don’t), it’s not hard to picture the scene that described.
“I’m not an overly religious person. But I was born and raised Catholic, and while I do not retain an institutional connection to the religion (I do not attend church) I do maintain a spiritual one. I receive communion as often as I can. Sometimes a priest delivers it, but more often a deacon. Well, yesterday, Sunday, the deacon comes over. And he's wearing antlers. And red flashing lights over the antlers. And I'm thinking to myself -- as he's putting the holy eucharist into my mouth, and we're doing the prayers,) "Body of Chirst," and "Thow aren't worthy of coming under my roof") -- "I'm receiving communion from Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer. I'm not making this up. I couldn't make this up -- I don't have that fertile an imagination. I have this communion wafer in my mouth, and I'm thinking, does this really count if I'm receiving it from someone dressed in antlers and a flashing red nose?
My doctor says I can have a drink every now and then, and I think I'm going to have one now. Bourbon. Straight up.”
The day before Mooney sent that another email came from the NTWAB asking members to post notes on the organization’s website that Bill might get the chance to read. Many members responded and they’re notes were posted on the NTWAB website.
The recognition continued to roll in Thursday as Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Kentucky Senate recognized Mooney for his contributions to racing and for his courage while battling cancer. The text of the official press release is below.
Bill Mooney, the award-winning turf writer who ranks among thoroughbred racing’s premier historians of any generation, has been recognized by Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Kentucky Senate for his contributions to the horse industry and courage in the face of a devastating two-year battle with cancer.
The Senate proclamation on the motion of Sen. Reggie Thomas read in part that Mooney “has worked tirelessly to preserve for posterity horse racing’s illustrious history, using details and descriptions which, for the reader, bring to life the colorful world of horse racing, both today and throughout history.”
Mayor Gray in his commemoration declared December “Bill Mooney Month in Lexington,” in part stating that the Lexington writer “is a kind, loving person who goes out of his way to help others in need; who has been a role model for journalists; and who has taught us all how to face overwhelming adversity with great strength, courage, grit and class; and … has made incredible contributions to horse racing that will last in perpetuity.”
The full text of both commendations can be found at NTWAB.org, the website of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. Mooney last year was the inaugural winner of the NTWAB’s Bill Mooney Award for the racing participant displaying courage in the face of tremendous adversity.
Mooney is a two-time Eclipse Award winner, in 1985 for the quintessential story about Ellis Park that ran in Thoroughbred Record and in 2007 for a poignant story about the euthanization of champion Precisionist at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Ky., that ran in Post Time USA. The native New Englander was awarded the 2012 Walter Haight Award by the NTWAB for career excellence, co-authored multiple editions of The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing: The Illustrated Guide to the World of the Thoroughbred and is author of the Tony Ryan Book Award-winning Keeneland’s Ted Bassett: My Life. He also has been a racetrack publicist of note.
However, Mooney’s greatest legacy could be his painstaking research and colorful descriptions of long-forgotten subjects such as the end of racing in Texas in 1938 before being banned for 50 years and short-lived Tri-State Fair Grounds in Huntington as the site of the first West Virginia Derby in 1923. The latter story (http://bit.ly/2hVhnk5) was published in the Paulick Report in August when Mooney was critically ill but still drove the six hours each between his home in Lexington to Mountaineer Park to handle publicity for the West Virginia Derby.
“One of the things that bothers me about the illness is that there are so many other stories that I wanted to write about,” Mooney said. “There was a great racetrack in Charleston, S.C., back in those days where something like four Kentucky Derby winners raced there. I so much wanted to write about that racetrack. There are a lot of lost racetracks out there that people don’t know about. It’s our history and our heritage.”
Mooney – whose magnificent and voluminous history and story-telling have been typed with one finger (a byproduct of being in a horrific auto crash at age 15) – sounds befuddled by the tributes, saying, “I’m an ordinary guy.”
That might be the one fact that Mooney has gotten wrong.
“I’ve never met a more diligent reporter,” said Michael Blowen, president and founder of Old Friends after being a critic for the Boston Globe. “I never met anyone, regardless of what their beat is, who is as good a fact-checker as Bill Mooney. On top of all that, we just owe him everything at Old Friends. Because he was one of the first people who had a reputation at stake who thought this was a good idea…. He’s just been a tremendous friend. We’re going to name a street after him. There’s nobody I’ve met more courageous than Bill.”
"Bill Mooney has been a mentor and, most importantly, an invaluable friend to the Thoroughbred racing industry and the Bluegrass community as a whole,” said NTWAB president Alicia Hughes. “The courage he has shown in his battle with cancer and the perspective he has maintained have further solidified his status as an inspiration to all.”
Tributes to Mooney from his colleagues can be found at NTWAB.org (direct link: http://bit.ly/2ihG8WP). Also on the website: The definitive story about rather than by Mooney, the son of two circus performers, including a world-class aerialist, and his distinction with the Walter Haight Award for Career Excellence In Turf Writing. http://bit.ly/2heF8GJ
In the spirit of the season and in honor of Mooney’s courageous fight, we encourage you to read Mooney's initial letter to colleagues. Titled, “I've still got some time," our piece with the letter ran Dec. 2, 2014.