The late-morning sunshine peeked through the windows as Bill Mooney gathered file folders, a jacket, sack of medicine and some other belongings from his room at a hospice facility in north Lexington last October. He was about ready to walk out into the quiet carpeted hallway when he stopped, spun around and grabbed a book from a desk near his comfortable looking lounge chair in the center of the room.
“We’ll need this, for the drive and in case we have to wait,” Mooney said to me, holding the recent release of the fourth edition of Champions: America’s Greatest Thoroughbreds.
The drive was to the doctor, across town at a cluster of office buildings near St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington. The wait was something he’d gotten accustomed to during his courageous two-year battle with renal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer that ultimately claimed his life early Saturday morning at the age of 69.
Bill walked from the door of the hospice facility to the car that day, cautiously but not terribly slow, and off we went to the doctor’s office. Mary Simon, who with her husband Mark became two of Bill’s closest confidants during the latter stages of his fight, and Alicia Wincze-Hughes, another colleague and close friend of Bill’s, also made the drive in separate vehicles.
It’s a drive I’ll never forget; four turf writers about to meet a fifth – Mark – once we arrived just off Harrodsburg Road in South Lexington.
Mid-October in Kentucky can be beautiful and it was about as good as it can get in the Bluegrass, replete with bright sunshine, a smattering of wispy clouds and warm air. Bill wore a sweatshirt and a jacket. The car was warm when we got in and still warm as we drove, windows only cracked a smidge, into town.
The cancer that Bill battled for more than two years to that day had already taken a heavy physical toll. He didn’t look like the same guy who worked out, enjoyed doing work in his yard and was a fixture in the press box at Keeneland, always seated at the end of a table and in later years often flanked by the next generation of racing writers. He was, however, exactly like the same guy who would discuss just about any topic thoughtfully, enthusiastically, critically and intelligently.
When Mary Simon told me Bill was in a hospice facility I immediately thought I’d pay a visit to basically say goodbye to a man who through the years was someone I knew only by name and became someone I could call a friend. My first thoughts sprang back to our days at Thoroughbred Times, when I was in the managing editor’s chair and he was in his role as contributing editor. He’d written a story, sent it in, called to confirm it was there and mentioned how it wasn’t exactly his best.
Not thinking much of it at the time – Bill had won two Eclipse Awards, amazingly 22 years apart, to that point – I figured it would be fine and started to give it a read. A few hours later Bill called back, saying he’d rewritten the piece and would appreciate me discarding the other.
We talked about that very exchange on the drive and then the topic of conversations turned.
“Tell me about this lecture, what’s the topic and what can I help you with,” Bill said, referring to a conversation the day before when I asked a good time to visit and that I’d like his advice on a talk I’d been asked to give at the Saratoga Springs History Museum at the end of the month.
The topic of the lecture was the upcoming Breeders’ Cup and how it’s affected other major races and racing events in North America. Bill, in a way only Bill could, offered up a roadmap of where the discussion could go. Take a look at this race, or that race, or even this race, he basically said.
The advice he gave was helpful, not surprisingly, but it’s how he did it that I can still feel in my heart, now two days removed from learning of his passing via email from Alicia that said, “He took his last breath at 3:20. He was very peaceful and not in any pain.”
I showed up at the hospice facility expecting to say goodbye, to find out about what was keeping Bill up or down, or what his outlook on life might be at this very moment. As we drove to St. Joseph’s we didn’t discuss any of that, nor did we in the waiting room. We talked about the project and the research, two things Bill very much cherished, and we lived in the moment.
Bill lived in the moment plenty in the subsequent days, weeks and months.
I didn’t see him again but we stayed in touch, either through Mary, his communication with the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters or on the telephone.
Our last conversation will stay with me forever.
Two days before Christmas, while visiting my sister and her family for the holidays, I gave Bill a call at his home. That’s right, home, where he’d been for several weeks after leaving the hospice facility. The day before news circulated in the racing press that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Kentucky Senate were honoring Bill for his contributions to the racing industry.
Sean Clancy sent an email that afternoon, asking, “is there anything we can do for Bill Mooney?” and I cobbled together a short introduction, pasted in the press release and added a few links to another story we wrote about Bill more than two years earlier when he informed his friends and colleagues of his battle. The story didn’t seem quite complete without something fresh from Bill. Cue the phone call.
“This is all just too much; I’m embarrassed to no end,” Bill said. “I just want to crawl under a rock … I’m just an ordinary guy … I’m blown away by it.”
After a few more minutes of that type of response after receiving some more congratulations, Bill showed his mind was sharp as ever.
“So, how did the talk go?”
Shortly after explaining that it went off without a hitch, was fairly well attended and received with enthusiasm, Bill remarked how his biggest frustration at the moment was the fact his internet service wasn’t working and he couldn’t get emails out to thank friends and colleagues for sending along well wishes. He also discussed a recent cataract surgery, how it helped his vision become “bright, crystal clear and sharp” and the 2016 Breeders’ Cup being “as a collection of races one of the best Breeders’ Cups I’ve seen.”
Just as the topic of conversation weaved toward the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series – Bill’s favorite team is from across town, the Chicago White Sox – an in-home aid got his attention. Polite as ever, Bill asked if I could hold the line. He returned a few minutes later and we talked for a few more minutes, wished each other Merry Christmas and said farewell.
About two hours later my cell phone rang and the name “Bill Mooney” appeared on the screen. Bill called to apologize, saying he felt like he’d rushed off the phone and wanted to hear more about my holiday plans and about the talk at the history museum.
The thought – here was this man, riddled with cancer, tumors all over his body and probably down to his last days on earth – that he wanted to hear about something someone else did floored me that day and floored me again when I got word over the weekend of his passing.
It’s one thing for people to say they care about others; it’s entirely another to actually do it. Bill Mooney did it and his lessons, which I’ll never forget, are a wonderful example for so many in our world today.
Rest in peace my friend. Godspeed.
Editor's note: Alicia Wincze-Hughes, president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, sent a note to the membership and a note from Bill Mooney Saturday morning after learning of his passing. Here is her note:
"Bill Mooney passed away early this morning. He took his last breath at 3:20 a.m. He was very peaceful and not in any pain. His neighbor Barbara and his nurse Dutchess were with him. I can say in all honestly I am extremely grateful he is finally at peace. The celebration of life memorial will be taking place at The Thoroughbred Club at Keeneland. Barbara and Tom Tobin are expected to huddle up today to finalize the details, but it will take place Feb. 18 in order to give out of towners time to get here. Jennie Rees is working on the obit and once it is finalized, we will go ahead and post it on the NTWAB website.
So long my friends
So long and Hail!
I'm off to seek the Holy Grail!
My dearest wish Is to stay with you!
But I can't.
A celebration of Bill’s life is scheduled foron at The Thoroughbred Club of America, 3555 Rice Road at the intersection with Versailles Road in Lexington. Memorial gifts: Hospice of the Bluegrass, 2312 Alexandria Dr, Lexington, KY, 40504, and Old Friends Equine, 1841 Paynes Depot Rd., Georgetown, KY, 40324, where founder and close friend Michael Blowen is naming a road for Bill.