I sat down with a good friend of 30 years on a date that will be easy to remember 12/13/14. Nationally recognized award-winning writer Bill Mooney joined me for a casual lunch at Malone’s surrounded by racing memorabilia and framed autographs of high-profile trainers and jockeys who have earned the sports highest honor – the Eclipse Award. Surely our server and those at the tables around us were not aware they were in the presence of a man who had won two Eclipse Awards, nor would he want them to.
About two weeks before, Bill stunned his contemporaries with a release to the members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters titled “A Letter To My Fellow Turf Writers.” He poignantly spoke to the fact that he’d developed cancer on a kidney that needed to be removed. He had to undergo surgery just before Thanksgiving and he outlined his determined plans to regain his strength and maintain a positive mental attitude through the months ahead. His resolve in that regard was made crystal clear throughout our afternoon together.
Upon learning about his situation and reading his heartfelt letter, I believed it was important his story be told. Bill Mooney has led a most interesting life, one that has seen great personal achievements despite facing overwhelming personal tragedies. “I’m always hesitant to do something like this because the thing of it is – I never like to be the story, I like to be the person that tells the story, I’ve never liked being on this side.” Bill took a deep breath, “At this point I don’t know, I don’t know where life’s going to go or how much of life I have left and I don’t say that as a ‘woe is me thing,’ but people are always asking me how it is going and I don’t have that answer.”
After lunch we took a side trip to Keeneland. To demonstrate how quickly he was working on getting his strength back he “double-stepped” it up to the paddock and we toured the saddling area on a brisk overcast day. After a brief visit to the crowded simulcasting area to cash a ticket left from the fall meet we headed over to his house. Shortly after entering he said, “Come here I think you’d like to see this.” He pointed to a framed, colored newspaper clipping that brought back childhood memories. Every Sunday I’d look forward to the section of the paper that featured “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” This particular edition featured a circus act where a petite 112 lb. woman was balancing a long pole upwards from her shoulder and atop it were two performers whose weight totaled 320 lbs. The small but sturdy woman was named Maria Antalek. “That’s my mother,” Bill spoke proudly.
Both of his parents worked for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. “The advent of my birth caused my parents to leave the circus because I was their second child and they did not want to bring up their whole family in a circus environment, it was too nomadic,” Bill explained. “We did have a lot of relatives in the circus, there were 21 children in my mother’s family and most of them were in the circus, so we would go visit them with frequency.” Bill’s family settled in the bucolic New England town of Tiverton, Rhode Island.
His current ability to deal with a monumental emotional trauma by using internal determination and strength was developed at an early age. The day before his 11th birthday his father committed suicide. “My dad had the worst substance abuse problem of anybody I met my entire life. On my 11th birthday I was looking at his dead body in a funeral home.” Bill’s might over adversity, would be tested on another level four years later. He was involved in a horrific automobile accident that left a friend of his dead, lying across his lap. His body was left scarred and broken to the point that he had to spend several months in the hospital. At the age of 15, one can only imagine the resolve it took to heal and return to school.
For those who know Bill as a learned “get your facts straight” bookman, you would think that in high school he would be the type to hit the books. Instead it turns out he was more likely to hit the bricks. “I was into goofing around a lot. I was actually a habitual truant,” he admits. “I think I played hooky some thirty times and I never got caught which amazes me to this day. The main reason was I would do it just on my own. I’d hitch-hike somewhere like Providence, Rhode Island and just walk around. Maybe that’s part of the nomadic spirit I inherited from my father, because my father was a person always very much on the move.
There was something about the south that always impressed him and he attended college at North Texas State University. Upon graduation and with an uncertain future he attended Michigan State University where he completed both the Masters and Doctoral programs and eventually taught there for eight years. During a six-year period in this phase of his life he also taught night school at the state penitentiary in southern Michigan as an avocation. As if his plate wasn’t full enough he began writing freelance articles for the likes of Sports Illustrated, the Sunday Magazine of the Detroit Free Press, Hoofbeats and other sports related publications.
In 1980 he began freelancing for the Thoroughbred Record and the request for his talents came with such regularity that in 1983 the Editor in Chief, Tim Capps offered him the position of Associate Editor. “I was in a mood where I was ready to change careers and I wanted to write for a living and travel a lot and figured that would give me the opportunity to do it.” With a slight grin Bill stated, “So I left academia and moved to Lexington.” Michigan’s loss was the racing world’s gain. Within 24 months he garnered his first Eclipse Award for Outstanding Magazine Writing for the Thoroughbred Record for a story he wrote about Ellis Park.
Through his travels covering the racing industry, Bill was befriended my many and Thistledown’s General Manager George Jones was among that group. “He offered me a full-time job as the track publicist and I worked there in 1987 and 1988. I didn’t do a good job as Publicity Director at Thistledown,” he starkly admits. “My heart wasn’t in it and my mind was still that as a journalist. I look back at that with a lot of regret because I should have done a much better job than I did.”
Mooney returned to the familiar surroundings of Lexington and continued to write for both the Thoroughbred Times and the Blood-Horse. Eventually the call of the south and his somewhat vagabond spirit lured him to one of North America’s most historic race tracks in one of its most unique cities - The Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He was no sooner settled into his new confines when he was faced with another tragedy of monumental proportions. The date was December 17, 1993 and the night skies of the Crescent City were eerily lit up bright orange as the mostly wooden grandstand and clubhouse that were established in 1872 went up in flames. Along with them went all of Bill’s journalistic tools and years of story files, research and photos.
“My laptop, typewriter, entire camera outfit, photos and negatives including the final days of Longacres, virtually all of my historic files were just lost in the fire. It was tough, but as you know I’ve been through some tough things before,” yes he had. A lesser man would have thrown his hands up, but Bill put his to work. “I know what my immediate reaction to it was. At 5:30 the next morning I went to a Kroger got a yellow pad and two Bic pens and started walking around the backstretch interviewing people what they thought about the fire! The fire at Fair Grounds just discombobulated everything. I stayed on for about two years and then by mutual agreement with Fair Grounds management and myself I decided that was it.
From that point on the journalistic side of his soul won out and he has been a freelance writer ever since guided in a sense by his philosophy. “What I try to do is two things – I try to make people think and make them laugh. You know this is supposed to be fun you know and I think sometimes I’ve achieved that.” After a brief pause for a sip of tea Bill continued, “I’ve never written anything that I’ve been completely satisfied with, even articles that have won Eclipse Awards (Mooney also has received four honorable mentions for the Eclipse). I look at them to this day and say ‘Well, gee – you could have done this differently or phrased that differently or it’s not quite as accurate as you wanted it.”
While he may be critical of his own work, he captured the 2007 Media Eclipse Award for Writing in the News/Commentary category for his column “Final Days for a Hall of Famer,” on the passing of the great racehorse Precisionist, which appeared in the January 2007 edition of Post Time USA. It was a beautifully written account of the final days of the champion who was a fan favorite pensioned at Old Friends Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. His portrayal of farm founder Michael Blowen bidding him goodbye and the sincere emotion communicated between a horse and the man who loved him could not have been put into words any better.
“I am stunned to win a second Eclipse Award,” said Mooney. “These Media Awards are so hard to win because the competition is so great and the quality of turf writing and the talent of the reporters who cover the sport and this industry have never been better.” After stating those words, he beckoned Michael Blowen out of the audience and handed him his trophy, “Here, this is for you, you’re the one that deserves it.” To this day that award sits prominently at the main office of Old Friends.
Mooney collaborated with long-time thoroughbred industry leader James E. "Ted” Bassett to be honored with the 2009 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. The pair won for the autobiography Keeneland’s Ted Bassett: My Life. Renamed in 2008 for the late founder of Castleton Lyons who created the prize in 2006 to reward book-length literary excellence, the award is presented annually for the best work published about an aspect of Thoroughbred racing. Bassett and Mooney received a $10,000 prize as well as a trophy made of custom-designed Irish crystal.
Bassett has been a high-profile member of the racing community for more than 40 years, most of that time as president, board chairman, and trustee at the renowned Keeneland Race Course in Lexington. Mooney gracefully chronicled his extraordinary his life from his graduation from Yale University through his service in the U.S. Marines to the position of director of the Kentucky State Police on the way to heading up Lexington’s iconic track.
"I have never worked on a professional project that I have devoted myself more to and I have never worked on a professional project that I have wanted to do more than this,” Mooney said.
While Bill can be his own harsh critic at times, judge Kay Coyte certainly wasn’t. "Anyone who loves horse racing would love this book,” said Coyte, a Washington Post editor and an Eclipse Award winner. "Because of Bassett’s interesting early career, his love of people and horses, and his more recent world travels, there’s more than enough adventure to hold the attention of even the most casual reader. The addition of co-author Bill Mooney was like a fine wine paired with a gourmet dinner.”
As recent as 2012, Mooney was adding additional hardware to his mantle when he was voted to receive the national Walter Haight Award, named after the legendary sportswriter from the Washington Post. It is presented to an individual for “Lifetime Excellence in Turf Writing.” What makes the recipients of this honor especially proud is the fact that it is voted on by their peers in The National Turf Writers Association.
While he genuinely downplays the recognition his body of work has led him to achieve, I couldn’t resist pushing the question – prestigious as the awards are - which one gave him the most sense of pride? The answer surprisingly had nothing to do with horseracing and he took little time in coming up with his response. “It was the ‘Excellence in Teaching Award’ from Michigan State University in 1976. That meant an awful lot to this day it does. It means I was able to really communicate with the students and that’s what you need to do in teaching, it’s very hard work teaching well.”
“You like to see minds develop and talent mature and I see a lot of that amongst the young writers in racing. They are very passionate about it, but they work hard at it too. I know, because I watch them at work.” The press box at Keeneland is a special place on race day. In an era when most press boxes are littered with empty chairs, Keeneland’s is abuzz with writers, photo journalists and broadcasters representing daily, weekly and monthly media outlets. Mooney is a mainstay in the first seat at the third row of workstations. While he is a part of a veteran corps that lists outstanding wordsmiths such as Jennie Rees, Dan Farley and Marty McGee as regular attendees, he’s taken the time to watch and respect the next generation. Perhaps it is a bit of the old professor in him.
“There are a bunch of them out there, Claire Novak, Frank Angst there is a young lady that works for the Paulick Report, Natalie Voss – I like the way she thinks and she’s developed a very vivid way of writing. I mean these people are good and they’re not the only ones. Alicia Wincze Hughes of the Lexington Herald Leader is almost a veteran at this point, I think as a reporter she is very good, very accurate and she works hard at it,” observes Mooney. “A lot of the younger writers seem to gravitate towards her.”
While he maintains a strict regimen of diet and physical fitness on a daily basis, Bill is hopeful he will weather the next phase of his treatment which will involve levels of chemotherapy. “You’ve got to keep things monitored. Eventually you get to the point where either the therapy works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t we are going to have to look at other things, if it does it means my doctor’s appointments would be something like three months apart.” With positive hope for the latter, Bill has a plan of action. “I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. I think what I may do as part of my therapy is to hit the road, just get in my car and drive and take the back roads and see as much as I can. The one thing I am not going to do is sit at home and think about the disease. It’s a terrible disease and it is eventually going to take me out, they made no bones about that, I am a terminal cancer patient. I don’t mind staying in Motel 8’s, I don’t mind staying in Motel 6’s – that’s just fine with me. I’ll start out by going south because it is wintertime and just see where it takes me. Besides I like to walk in the south, I’m a New Englander and New Englanders like to walk.”
His writing ability and career choices seem to have allotted him the chance to fill out a life that he appreciates, enjoys and was molded to do. Genetics, challenging life experiences, a carnival life that has allowed him to juggle careers in academia and on racetrack backstretchs, Bill Mooney feels appreciation for the life the sport has lent him. “Just being able to travel the United States, quite frankly, the process of going to all of these breeding farms and racetracks and O.T.B. parlors and historic sites has been wonderful. I like to drive and I’ve seen some extraordinary things as far as racing is concerned and also apart from racing during the course of my travels.”
“And once again that fits in – my mother came from a circus family, my father ran away from home to join the circus, he had the ‘wanderlust’ and I think that is the one thing I inherited from him – ‘wanderlust.’ On the road as much as I was it fulfilled a need in me to be on the go and see things – that’s what racing has meant to me more than anything.
EDITOR’S NOTE: During the week of the Breeders’ Cup World Championship in Lexington, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters hosted their annual awards dinner. James E. “Ted” Bassett presented Bill with the 1st Annual “Bill Mooney Courage Award,” - for those in racing who display great courage in the face of extreme adversity.