Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Running for His Life

One of the best things about this game is the people you meet along the way. Bill Mooney is one of those people. We've known each know for nearly four decades and the first trait that becomes apparent when you speak with him is his classy demeanor; the respectful, measured responses, the thoughtfulness, the passion he has for the sport. We cannot be considered close friends, but whenever our paths would cross in press boxes across the country, in Saratoga especially, it always was and remains a pleasure: Call it a pari-mutuel admiration society. This week, Bill sent an e-mail to his turf writing brothers and sisters, one which I'm certain, considering the message within, forced all of us to check our stride and think, the way his copy always does. I asked Bill if he wouldn't mind sharing his thoughts with the HRI audience, that it might make a difference in the life of some racing fan who knows what Bill's days are like now and how they might approach life's random fragility and reckless abandon.

By Bill Mooney

The doctors took out my right kidney on Tuesday. The kidney and cancerous mass that engulfed it weighed 20 pounds. I saw the pictures of how it had looked on the ultrasound a few days after the surgery.

To me, it resembled the Hindenburg exploding.

How could a person be walking around for so long with such a tumor inside him and not know it? Believe me, I’m clueless. I had no symptoms. The surgeon speculates that the tumor may have been slowly growing for 10 years, and my body kept adjusting to it. The fact that I had long kept in shape – good diet, lots of long-distance walking, and weight lifting – was also a factor in disguising its presence.

I was told, post-surgery, that they got that one huge infestation in its entirety and that luckily it had not spread into the colon, liver, or bone structures. It has spread elsewhere, however, as kidney cancer tends to do – to my thyroid, to a lymph gland on the side of my neck, and there are spots on my lungs.

There’s also a small cancerous tumor (about the size of a finger nail) in my left kidney. That will be taken care of sometime during the next few weeks via a procedure that “freezes it,” or in effect burns it out. This will involve outpatient surgery, which means I won’t be in the hospital overnight.

An MRI [brain scan] was conducted last Saturday. As I write this, it is the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t want to know the results. I would prefer to wait a little longer, eat some leftover turkey and dressing, and drink a glass of red wine before I find out.

My discharge from Baptist Health Hospital was Sunday. It is standard hospital procedure, when a patient has had major surgery so recently, to have him leave by way of a wheelchair. I refused and told (my wife) Karen and the hospital staff I was determined to walk out.

“It’s three very long corridors,” said Karen, looking at me apprehensively. Yes, but I had walked those corridors when I entered the hospital five days earlier and I was going to walk them now in the opposite direction. And not by using a thousand baby steps, but striding.

So, I did. And now I’m home. Many decisions must be made in the upcoming weeks. The cancer doctor has told us that without further treatment, maybe I’ll live for a year; with treatment, maybe longer. He’s going to start me on minor chemotherapy treatments at first, see what happens, and go from there.

He’s talked about my getting involved in clinical trials at the Vanderbilt University Medical School in Tennessee, and by doing that at least I’d make myself useful. I will not “fry: myself with chemo; neither will I turn myself into some sort of medical guinea pig in a desperate effort to prolong my life.

But I am willing to do some experimenting. I like the way [this doctor] thinks and handles himself. Karen likes him, too. I am a terminal cancer patient – there is no avoiding that hard fact. Termination can be delayed, though, while experiencing a reasonable quality of life at the same time.

One thing the good doctor has stressed is the necessity of keeping in the best physical condition I can. This means getting back to my walking routine, and working my way up to miles, not yards. Well, on Monday of this week, my first full day home, I walked 200 yards. My third day home, I walked one full mile. On Thanksgiving Day I walked two miles. My right side was burning when I finished. This afternoon, I plan to walk further; and tomorrow, further still.

The doctor wants me to eventually get back to doing regular outdoor chores such as raking leaves and shoveling snow. And I will. He wants me to get back to light weight lifting.

This morning, I pulled out a ten-pound weight from under my bed.

I sat there just staring at it for a few minutes. Then I laid down flat on my back on the floor, took the weight, and began lifting it. Ten repetitions. Then ten more. Then ten more after that. Prior to surgery, I could easily bench press a hundred pounds. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that again. But I bet I can reach fifty.

There’s been so much for the mind to process in such a short period. I’m writing this on November 28. On October 28 I had no idea I had kidney cancer. The following day, I got an email from Nephrology Associates of Lexington, informing me that “one new item” had been added to my record. I clicked on to it, and the item consisted of four words: “Diagnosis: Renal Cell Carcinoma.”

On November 4 I was told the entire right kidney had to come out. On November 11 I was told my cancer was Stage Four, and that if the kidney didn’t come out immediately I had only six months remaining in my life.

A tornado of activity ensued: getting power of attorney and living will documents (both are legal requirements prior to major surgery in Kentucky); getting a regular will written; informing family, friends and co-workers. Making arrangements to have the house and property cared for. And filling out forms – repetitive forms, voluminous forms – for the various medical practices involved.

Late on the afternoon of November 13, five days before the surgery, I got a phone call from the cardiology department at Baptist Health. I was told that I had never had a heart stress test, and because of that the surgery could not occur.

Could I get a heart stress test now? No, I was told, they were all booked up. I told the lady that, literally, my life was at stake.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.” At 11:10 the following morning, I was informed that a cancellation had occurred and if I got there in 20 minutes, I could do the stress test. I was there at 11:29.

But then I was told that if I had consumed any caffeine during the past 24 hours I couldn’t take the test. And so I lied to them. “Oh, no, I don’t drink coffee, never do,” I said, knowing all the while that with each delayed day, that mass engulfing my right kidney was poisoning my body all the more.

They wanted to conduct a nuclear stress test, without putting me on a treadmill. But I knew that work on a treadmill helps neutralize the presence of caffeine. I casually said (while hiding the panic within me), “oh, please, I’d like to do the treadmill. I’m in good shape. I walk; lift weights.”

I received the clearance to do so. And on that treadmill I literally ran for my life. Faster, faster, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine,” I kept telling the nurses. Friday evening, the precise time was 8:08 p.m., the cardiologist left a message on my answering machine. The results of the stress test were “good,” he said, and I “could go ahead with the surgery.”

Amidst the chaos, there were moments of calm. They would most notably occur at 4 a.m. when I’d wake up and in the darkness I could hear the rustle of the wind in the branches of the tree next to the bedroom window, and the horn from a railroad engine sounding in the distance. I’d roll on my right side, and put my arm around Karen, and from her low breathing and the warmth coming from her I’d gain strength.

And I would think to myself, “It is okay. I can do this.”

The night before the surgery, in the TV room, just before going to bed, we turned out the lights and put on Karen’s favorite song, Fields of Gold, sung by Sting. And we danced to it. We danced to it twice.

And I learned something else during the days immediately prior to the surgery. Yes, it’s flattering to be a multiple Eclipse Award winner. And to be a Tony Ryan Award winner. And especially to be a Walter Haight Award recipient, because that was something bestowed by my peers.

But, much more importantly, I learned that many, many people believe I’ve impacted their lives over the years. People inside the racing industry; people outside the racing industry. Colleagues, friends, relatives – recalling to me so many things, so many little favors that I had thought nothing of at the time or had long forgotten. And this has brought to me another realization – while I have contributed to the lives of others, I so dearly wish I had done more.

Did I pray? Yep. I still do. Every night before bedtime, I kneel down and ask God for strength, wisdom, and guidance. But I do not ask God to spare my life. (Others may do that for me, if they wish, but I don’t.) And not once, not even for a few seconds, have I gone through the, “Why Me? Why is this happening to me?” routine. I view that as a waste of time and a waste of breath.

Sunrises have never looked so beautiful. Sunsets have never looked so beautiful. Even cloudy, blustery days in late November have never looked so beautiful, even with the trees barren of leaves.

And Karen has never looked so beautiful. “This is going to be a big roller coaster ride,” she has said several times. And no one knows that better than her. Karen’s late husband, to whom she was married for 34 years, was diagnosed with cancer during their 32nd year of marriage. Two years later, on his 55th birthday, he died. Karen’s been through this before.

This morning, I got on the scale. Weight: 147 pounds. Body mass: 22.3. I’m 67 years old and there’s nothing wrong about those numbers for a man my age. I’ve got 29 staples in my right side – they were scheduled to come out Tuesday.

I’ve still got some time. Exactly how much? I don’t know. But I’ve pretty much got two goals left: to keep myself as physically and emotionally strong as possible and to enrich the lives of others. The latter can often be accomplished with a few kind words.

By that, I mean giving encouragement to a young turf writer. Believe me, folks, the new generation of turf scribes is loaded with talent. And I know that for a fact, because I watch them at work and read their material.

I also mean expressions of gratitude and respect to members of the older generation who practice the craft. You’ll never know how many times, how many hundreds of times, I’ve read the work of the colleagues from my own generation and thought, “God, I wish I could think that clearly, I wish I could write that well.”

And keep in mind, if I should direct some encouragement or gratitude your way, it will be stated with 100% sincerity. That’s one of the benefits of being a terminal cancer patient. There’s never a need to fool anyone. I can forevermore say exactly what I think. By giving strength to others, I gain strength for myself. Please don’t deny me the dignity of doing that.

I’ve never been to Rome. I plan to take Karen there this April. I’ve never been to Del Mar. Or to Portland Meadows. Or to Yankee Stadium. Maybe I’ll finally get to these places. But, most of all, I want to dance a few more times to Fields of Gold with Karen. No, not a few more times – lots of times.

I hope.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Emulating Yonkers Raceway Would Be Good for Thoroughbred Business

PLANTATION, FL, November, 20, 2014--Remember watching the start of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic over and over, trying to pick up exactly when and where the horse beneath #7 orange saddle-cloth crashed into the one wearing the black #6?

In the simulcast era, colored saddle cloths have become indispensable when trying to decipher which of the two horses battling head to head two the wire 10 lengths behind the runaway leader are going to win the photo.

Was it the horse racing on the inside or the outside? Did I win the trifecta? Are those the horses I used to complete the super?

Colored saddle cloths certainly have made it easier for fans and bettors to enjoy horse racing and, for that, Thoroughbred racing owes a debt of gratitude to those who work on the Harness side of the street.

The Standardbred folks introduced the innovation, Thoroughbred racing followed, altering the original color scheme so that the saddle cloths wouldn't match exactly--as if product differentiation were completely necessary.

There has been some talk in Thoroughbred circles recently about using tote boards that display the precise win payoff and a range of prices that the second and third runners-up would pay, depending on the odds.

Harness racing already has been there, down that. A tote board displaying actual payoffs was in use, "where it all began" but now defunct Roosevelt Raceway, a half century ago. Yes, contemporaries, it has been that long.

While it might have existed earlier, the popularity of importing international races into the U.S. got the most visibility with the advent of the Dubai World Cup.

Watching Cigar win the 1996 inaugural from the Hialeah press box was an indelible moment, as it was when Silver Charm got the job done two years later.


But beyond major events such as the Breeders' Cup, Thoroughbred racing has done very little exporting its races--the kind of product available on non-event days--overseas.

Well, the Standardbred game again stole the march in innovation idea when Yonkers Raceway began exporting its signal to France at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings as Parisians began thinking about supper time.

Not only did Yonkers export five races on an experimental basis that will run four more Sundays but they did so by catering to the betting audience they were anxiously trying to attract.

All five races were on the trot, and all five were lengthened to 1-1/4 miles with larger fields, conditions more familiar to European horseplayers.

The numbers were remarkable, Europeans wagering 1.75 million Euros on Nov. 9 and 1.81 million one week later on the specially tailored “French race cards."

The second week, Yonkers raised the profile by featuring handicapping insights harness race great Mike Lachance, the European audience not only including French bettors but those from Austria, Basque, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Holland, Luxemburg, Malta and Switzerland, as well.

The Sunday morning experiment has been an unqualified success. The first week, nearly $500,000 was bet on the five European style races. Last Sunday, $450,000 was bet on the first race alone.

FOLLOW THE LEADER: It seems like the time is right for Thoroughbred racing to follow the lead of their Standardbred brethren once again, to see what the future might hold. Consider:

U.S. tracks such as Arlington Park, Belmont Park and Gulfstream, featuring either multi-positional inner rails or two or more turf courses, could export five turf races overseas.

If one did, the recommendation here would be to resist the greed factor and limit or entirely exclude horizontal wagers, giving the experiment its best chance to churn the race by race handle.

American racetracks, in addition to its standard vertical wagers, might offer, say, one lowest possible takeout Pick 5 with a 25-Cent minimum, giving Europeans horseplayers incentive to bet-and-breakfast with this exotic enticement.

If offered as a special "promotional wager experiment," tracks might be able to get around pari-mutuel takeout restrictions mandated by their states. And, please, no carryover jackpot wagers.

Either way, some enterprising American Thoroughbred racetrack might learn that exporting Euro-centric grass races can result in attracting old and new audiences alike.

It seems like it might be worth a try and, just maybe, a late Sunday morning first-race post might spark state-side business, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Taking a Pick 10 Shot Finally Makes Sense

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 15, 2014-- The HRI faithful know how I feel about the Pick 10 when it was first offered over a series of four Mondays.

The surmise is that Gulfstream wanted to kick off South Florida’s Gulfstream Park West era with a bang, and to see if the concept had legs beyond Miami Lakes, long enough to reach Dec.6, the start of the parent track‘s “championship meet.”.

To be kind, the Pick 10 was and is a way-over-the-top mimicking of the Rainbow 6, a wager that proved highly successful virtually since conception.

So popular was it, in fact, that management flirted with success by tweaking it in the hopes of doing even better. In the main, they succeeded

With a higher percentage of the winnings paid daily and a lower percentage of handle carried into the next day’s jackpot pool should a lone winner devour the entire enchilada, the wager continued to prosper.

The catch was that the dime minimum was doubled, the added cost spun as a way of allowing Woodbine bettors into the pool. In Canada, the legal minimum is 20-cents.**

Of course that was not the only motive as management sought more of a good thing. On a daily basis, the tack worked, but then it didn’t work, too.

The only time any real buzz was created is when the jackpot reached the magic million-dollar mark.

With more money being paid daily to bettors having the most winners, pots continued to grow, incrementally at first, then exponentially. When the jackpot reached a pot-of-gold status, every manner of player jumped in because the consolations often would reach four figures, enough to warrant an investment.

I’m not a big bettor by high-volume standards; somewhere between $300 and $500 per on-track gambling session dependent upon how much I’m able to churn. I bet much less online weekdays.

Beyond putting money where my feature-race mouth is, I limit my plays to horses-to-watch, a total of two or three bets a day max. I have neither the time nor inclination to do the research required to go beyond a few races.

Today, all racetracks are learning that just building it doesn’t means they will come: The entire industry has learned this with no small amount of pain, national handle cut by nearly one-third over the course of a decade, an unsustainable trend.

Even as my visits to Gulfstream increased as the championship season gained momentum, my participation in the Rainbow 6 was zero, my personal protest to the price increase.

Only after reaching a level where the reward was commensurate with the risk--for me, a pool approaching $500,000--would I look at the final six races in a sequence context.

By any measure, even at a dime, even with a 10 percent takeout, even if it was offered on a Monday when the simulcast cupboard is bare, the Pick 10 was a flop, a big one, for reasons even the late, great Ray Charles could see.

That said, I will jump into the pool tomorrow because it finally makes sense to do so. Despite the Pick 10’s absurd degree of difficulty, I feel as if I have a fighting chance to make a small score, the reward finally being worth the risk.

Notwithstanding the bet’s features listed above, the pool will be guaranteed at $25,000. I have no idea what the jackpot is now but clearly it’s not at the level it needs to be to garner interest

The reason it makes sense is that the entire pool will be distributed; Monday the mandatory payoff to those picking the most winners. All will share equally, minus the rake, of course. I’m setting the over-under success rate at 7-½ winners.

Due to Monday’s circumstances, prescient handicappers could have a very good day at a reasonable cost. Using two horses in eight races with two singles, for instance, the cost would be $25,60.

If seven winners gets it done, I might have a slim chance to win but it’s a shot worth taking. This is one of those rare instances when a bevy of impossible longshots can work in the favor of the average player.

I have no idea how much money will be bet but high-volume players are likely to pass because $25,000 represents a pittance. Either that, or they’ll throw enough money at it to hit 8 , 9 or even 10 winners.

But that’s why all this is called gambling; no one owns a secret decoder ring,

**correction re Woodbine reference made at 5:05 p.m. 111614

Written by John Pricci

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