• Rick Capone, Sports Editor

Turf writer & historian Bill Mooney has died

BILL MOONEY, left, stands with Old Friends’ founder and friend Michael Blowen, in front of the Eclipse award he won in 2007 writing about the death of one of the farm’s horses, Precisionist. He gave the Eclipse award statue to Old Friends. (File photo by Rick Capone)

Bill Mooney, a two-time Eclipse award winning turf writer, track historian and publicist, and mentor to young and old writers alike, died quietly in his home early Saturday morning, Jan. 28, after a two-year battle with cancer. Mooney grew up in New England, the son of two circus workers. According to the article “The Walter Haight Award for Career Excellence in Turf Writing” by Mike Kane, his father worked sometimes as a clown and then in the front office of the circus, while his mother was one of the Flying Antalek sisters. In that same article, it noted that Mooney first saw horse racing as a 7-year-old at the Great Barrington Fair, one of the fairs that held racing each summer in Massachusetts. The article also talked about an automobile accident that Mooney was in 1962, where he suffered facial and head injuries. During his hospital stay, he met an orderly, Richard DeLawrence, who also liked horse racing. So, for the two months he was in the hospital Mooney received “regular torturing in racing and handicapping” from DeLawrence. Following the accident, Mooney never recovered the use of his left hand, so everything he wrote after that accident he did by typing with just the index finger of his right hand. “I can do 40 words a minute with that finger,” he said in that Mike Kane article, “and make fewer mistakes than working with the whole hand.” Mooney got his undergraduate degree from North Texas, and then a master’s and Ph.D. from Michigan State, where he also taught English for seven years. He also taught journalism at the University of Georgia for a awhile. During that time, Mooney also did a lot of freelance writing. Then he made a career change and joined The Thoroughbred Record and began his turf writing career. Over time, he ended up working at other horse racing publications, including the Thoroughbred Times and BloodHorse magazine. He also did freelance writing for The New York Times and other publications. Mooney won many awards along the way, including two Eclipse awards. The first came in 1987 for a story he wrote about Ellis Park, which he wrote for The Thoroughbred Record, and the second came in 2007 for Post Time USA. It was titled “Final Days of a Hall of Famer,” and chronicled the final moments of the life of 1985 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Precisionist, who was pensioned at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown at the time. Mooney gave that Eclipse award statue to Blowen, Old Friends’ founder and Mooney’s friend. He also was awarded the Walter Haight Award for Excellence in Turf Writing from the his peers at the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, four other Eclipse award honorable mentions, and in 2010 he was awarded the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award as author of Keeneland’s “Ted Bassett: My life,” which he co-wrote with Bassett. One other book of note, Mooney was the co-author of “The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing: The Illustrated Guide to the World of the Thoroughbred.” The updated sixth edition was published just last year. One of his final awards came on Dec. 23, 2016, when Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Kentucky Senate recognized Mooney for “his contributions to the horse industry and courage in the face of a devastating two-year battle with cancer.” Over the years, Mooney also worked as a publicist at a number of horse racing tracks, including Fair Grounds, Thistledown, Presque Isle and Mountaineer Park. Writing about racetracks was one of his favorite subjects, especially the older, forgotten tracks in the United States. About those long forgotten race tracks, Mooney said in a BloodHorse.com article written by Jennie Rees on Dec. 23, 2016, “One of the things that bothers me about the illness is that there are so many other stories that I wanted to write about. 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.” What set Mooney apart from many of his peers was his painstaking research and attention to detail. He called the Keeneland library his “office” because that’s where he spent most of his days at a back-corner table researching the many articles and books he wrote in his lifetime. Mooney would spend hours combing the stacks of books, newspapers and periodicals in the library looking for those special nuggets of information that would turn a regular article into a gem filled with rich details and descriptions for readers to enjoy. In addition to all of his writing accomplishments, Mooney was a strong supporter of Old Friends and the farm’s official eulogist; a position he took very seriously. Every Memorial Day for the last 10-plus years, Mooney would stand in front of all those assembled and recite a beautiful, poetic tribute that he had written about all of the Old Friends’ horses who had died during the past year. With his characteristic attention to detail, he would recount each horse’s racing heroics, and he would also share one or more little known facts that he had researched and discovered about each horse so the people gathered would learn a little more about each one. Mooney fought his illness over the last couple years with everything he had within him. In fact, one afternoon right after one of his hospital stays, he visited the Old Friends office. There, with his traditional light-blue bucket hat on, he greeted everyone with a huge smile and talked about how he had just finished a walk around the entire farm, front to back – over 100 acres. And, he added, he wasn’t even tired. Over the last month or so, the disease finally started getting the better of him. He spent his days sitting in a chair in his living room looking out the window at the sunshine and talking to all the visitors who stopped in to see him. Sometimes when others were talking amongst themselves, you could see a smile on his face as he enjoyed just getting to listen to the conversation around him. Mooney fought to the end. He was 69.

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