10/26/2016 12:36PM

Hovdey: Mooney's courage tells his story

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The Bill Mooney Award for courage in the face of adversity will be presented by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association when the members gather during Breeders’ Cup week. This year’s honoree is Rene Douglas, the Belmont Stakes-winning jockey who was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident at Arlington Park in 2009.

Last year’s winner was Bill Mooney.

Even Mooney thought that was a little odd, receiving an award that already bore his name. The veteran journalist didn’t complain, however. As he stood before his colleagues a year ago in Lexington, Ky., Mooney knew it was a longshot he’d be around to find out if there would be a second Bill Mooney Award.

“Saturday will be the two-year anniversary of being diagnosed,” Mooney said from his home in Lexington. “I was given six months.”

In his ongoing battle with an aggressively metastasizing cancer that has hopscotched through his vital organs, Mooney most recently entered the hospital Aug. 18 with a tumor in his lower back that was pushing against his spine. While Mooney was there, it was discovered that a bacterial infection had gone to his heart. As a result, he spent two months hospitalized before returning home this week.

“I didn’t do much but read e-mails and regular mail from friends, and that helped,” Mooney said. “But for the large part of the time, I was just knocked out. Your mind kind of goes dead.”

Mooney’s illness has put the brakes on one of the most prolific turf-writing careers the game has known. He has won two Eclipse Awards, the Tony Ryan Book Award, and the Walter Haight Award for career excellence from his colleagues at the NTWBA.

Mooney, 69, is from the school of writers who go to the story, bear witness, and bring back the tale. If they tell it well, their readers are transported, convinced they were right there shooting the rapids, fighting the fire, or standing at the side of the grave, as Mooney did in his 2007 Eclipse Award-winning feature.

“He died on a beautiful early-autumn day – sunny, breezy, warm,” Mooney wrote. “The leaves on the pair of oak trees that flanked his grave site were just beginning to change their colors. Nine people were present, including Michael Blowen, the founder and president of Old Friends, and Dr. Holly S. Aldinger, a veterinarian with the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington.”

Mooney was one of the nine present at the death of Precisionist, the Hall of Famer and Eclipse Award champion, in September 2007. The gallant old horse was suffering horribly from the effects of inoperable malignant tumors impairing his nasal passages and soft palate. Euthanasia was the only merciful option.

“Within seconds, Precisionist let out a heavy gasp, slowly knelt down, and rolled over on his left side,” Mooney wrote. “Already, he was brain dead, although he continued to reflexively breathe, and there was also some reflex action in his legs. As Blowen cradled Precisionist’s head in his arms, Aldinger administered a second barbiturate-laden syringe to the horse’s neck. Three minutes later, all reflexive movement had ceased. Precisionist was gone.”

In a career spanning more than four decades, Mooney has recorded every high and low the racing game could provide. It is strange, though, when the writer becomes his own subject.

“If you do believe in miracles, what has happened with me is a miracle,” Mooney said. “Of course, it’s bad luck to get cancer, especially cancer of this kind. But not once have I ever said anything like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It’s a waste of time.

“So, forget about the award being named for me,” he said. “This is an award for courage, and Rene Douglas absolutely deserves it.”

Douglas has forged a life after his injury that includes a bloodstock business and appearances on behalf of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

“I would love to be there to present him the award,” Mooney said. “Unfortunately, right now I’m not well enough to take a bus ride to Cincinnati. But I would like to write something for him.”

So, he did.

“I think Rene’s situation and the one I’m dealing with are somewhat analogous in this regard,” Mooney’s tribute began. “In a brief period, our worlds got turned upside down, inside out, every direction you could imagine.

“People – assuredly, well-intended people – kept wanting to give me hope. But hope doesn’t do it. You have to seize the thing and battle it with all the strength you have in you, from a physical standpoint and an emotional standpoint.

“That’s what Rene has done, and that’s why he’s such an extraordinary person. One needs to reach that turning point where you no longer focus on the affliction – in my case, the disease, in his case, the paralysis – but to continue on living as productive a life as you can. It took me about seven months. Some people never can reach that turning point, but Rene has.”

When Mooney entered the hospital in August, he thought his time had come.

“I’m a tough old bird and obviously hard to kill, but I thought at least on two occasions I was dying,” he said. “And they did give me last rites of the church.

“I’m told those are good for the next time,” Mooney added. “I just hope the next time doesn’t come around for a while.”