SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - We came to remember Paul Moran, someone we never could forget. On a sunny Sunday morning, about 40 friends gave Newsday's longtime racing writer a Saratoga send-off on what would have been his 67th birthday. There were tears, laughs and anecdotes saluting a complex man and brilliant talent taken by lung cancer last November.
Paul's soul was set free, according to his wishes, as we scattered his ashes at the grave of Go for Wand in the infield at Saratoga Race Course, his favorite place in the world. Her catastrophic breakdown at Belmont Park in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff shook Moran and inspired a moving account that earned him one of his two Eclipse Awards.
Paulie was a short guy with a larger-than-life personality. He was one of a kind, an unfiltered iconoclast with "a lot of his own ideas," as his old pal Mark Berner said. "Often wrong, but never in doubt" described someone who should have had "I am right" tattooed on his forehead. Dare to disagree with him about politics and you'd get a shotgun blast of contempt. He waged a one-man campaign against political correctness with anti-Obama Facebook rants so nasty that some people un-friended him. To Paul, his opinions were absolute truths lesser minds couldn't comprehend.
His handicapping credo: "If you can't put a number on it, you're guessing." He was certain his beloved Easy Goer would win the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Berner asked Moran that week if there was any Derby news. Paul snarled, "There's no news unless Easy Goer is scratched!"
When Paul was at the top of his game, nobody wrote better. Yet he could let emotion sway him, particularly when he decreed jockey error had beaten a horse he'd touted or bet on. He never forgave Pat Day for his rides on Easy Goer in the Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic.
Journalism used to showcase outrageous personalities, and Moran was among the last of the line. His writing style was a throwback, too, featuring long, complex sentences reminiscent of William Faulkner's novels. What made Moran's work more remarkable was how quickly he produced it. Perhaps that stemmed from his fondness for the cocktail hour, which beckoned in late afternoon. After finishing, he'd say to Berner, "Markie, let's go get something distilled."
For 22 years, I edited most of his copy. After one cynically hilarious piece, I said, "Paul, the Irish darkness is in your soul." He smiled, clearly pleased.
This man of extreme contradictions would berate waiters and call his best friends "morons." He would scream at anyone cheering for a bet in the press box. Yet he revered gifted thoroughbreds and spoiled his cats. He bred a few New York-breds on the cheap and never complained when they didn't run well, which was almost all the time.
Beneath an unbreakable shell beat a soft heart. Twice divorced and childless, Paul sponsored four Third World kids whose pictures were taped to his refrigerator door. Letting that get out would have wrecked his carefully crafted image as a curmudgeon, so only a few close friends knew. When he received chemotherapy, the sight of pediatric cancer patients was heartbreaking.
"I can understand why I got sick," said Moran, a two-pack-a-day smoker since his 20s. "But what did these kids ever do to deserve this?"
So shortly before his death, he changed his will, leaving most of his money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital.
There's an empty space in a Saratoga press box where Moran fired uncensored one-liners for 29 summers. There always will be, but at least he'll never be far away.