Bill Mooney took nothing for granted.
In 2003, when Todd Pletcher broke the single-season record for most wins by a trainer at the Saratoga meet, racing writers said Pletcher beat the old mark of 24 victories set by Hall of Famer Sylvester Veitch in 1954. That's what was published in the New York Racing Association media guide.
Bill went to the chart books, did his own research, and discovered that Veitch actually saddled just 19 winners in 1954 – not 24 as the media guide stated.
That's the kind of digging Bill spent much of his adult life doing: discovering things related to Thoroughbred racing that no one else knew. And then he loved telling the stories about what he'd learned, whether it was over a keyboard or lunch with a friend.
Bill Mooney, born in 1947, died in the early morning hours today after a long battle with cancer. He fought like hell, with courage and good humor, and kept doing what he did best, right to the very end.
Bill won two Eclipse Awards for writing during his career, was voted the Walter Haight Award by his peers in the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters (NTWAB), and was recently recognized with proclamations from Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, Ky., and the Kentucky Senate for his many contributions to Thoroughbred racing.
I won't try to capture Bill's life story. Mike Kane did a masterful job when the NTWAB honored him in 2012. It's a fascinating read. I don't know anyone else who can say their parents were with the circus.
Bill marched to his own beat. While he would cover the “big event” in racing or write the history and analysis of the New York Racing Association in one of his signature three-part series, he seemed happiest pursuing the obscure stories that, without him, would never have seen the light of day.
He received his first Eclipse Award for a 1985 article in the Thoroughbred Record on little Ellis Park in Kentucky. His second, in 2007, was for a story on the final days of the Florida-bred champion Precisionist, a pensioner at Old Friends Equine in Georgetown, Ky. That story appeared in Post Time USA, a publication many turf writers looked upon with derision.
It seems fitting that both publications for which he won Eclipse Awards were underdogs and are no longer in business. The weekly Thoroughbred Record played second fiddle from a business standpoint to Blood-Horse magazine, became a monthly, then merged operations with Thoroughbred Times in November 1988 and eventually folded. Post Time USA was a free, colorful tabloid published by the late bon vivant Gene Stevens.
He wrote for many other publications over the years, including Blood-Horse and the New York Times and he worked as a publicist for several racing organizations. Bill is the author of Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life, winner of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, and was co-author of The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing: The Illustrated Guide to the World of the Thoroughbred. His last byline was in the Paulick Report last August for a story on the history of the West Virginia Derby at the Tri-State Fairgrounds in the 1920s. It was a quintessential Bill Mooney piece, unearthing nuggets of information that no one had ever written about before.
Bill and I go back to my days as managing editor for Mark Simon at the Thoroughbred Times, beginning in 1988. This was around the time when several racetracks were opening: the Birmingham Turf Club in Birmingham, Ala., Remington Park in Oklahoma City and G. Rollie White Downs in Brady, Texas. Bill loved to cover them. He took a very dim view of some of the consultants who supplied overly optimistic projections for how those tracks would perform once they opened, and he was usually right.
As much as he loved writing about racetrack openings, he took special interest in chronicling a track's final days or re-telling stories of defunct tracks and races that are part of the sport's history. He wrote a piece for Blood-Horse on the closing of Longacres in Renton, Wash., that beautifully captured what that track meant to so many people in the Pacific Northwest.
Bill was a one-man band as a writer and photographer when he would hop in his car (which he much preferred over flying) to cover a story. In that way, though he never made the transition to blogging and Twitter (I can just hear him now: “140 characters isn't nearly enough!), he was ahead of his time. Modern-day reporters have to balance research and interviews with photographs, Internet posts and social media interaction.
He could be infuriating to an editor of a print magazine, taking off on an assignment for a 1,500-word article and coming back with an armload of material that he would always say needed at least twice the word count and could run over two or three installments. He was usually right.
What many of his peers will remember about Bill Mooney was the kindness he showed, especially to younger writers, taking them under his wing and helping with introductions, encouragement and advice to advance their careers.
We last talked three weeks ago today. Bill called, looking for the telephone numbers of Natalie Voss and John Scheinman, who'd won Eclipse Awards in 2016 for articles that appeared in the Paulick Report. He wanted to call both of them and congratulate them for the excellent work.
Though his mind was sharp, I could tell by his voice that he was not in good shape. He was under hospice care and needed his caretaker to write down the phone numbers for him.
He'd been in and out of the hospital a lot and the only complaint to me was that he was unable to access websites like ours on the hospital's Wi-Fi network because they were considered “gambling” sites. “You need to talk to somebody about that,” he said.
His peers in the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters created the Bill Mooney Award for an individual displaying courage in the face of adversity. Bill was named the first recipient and it will be difficult to find a more deserving one.
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