The Passing of a Legend — Albert Edward “Bert” Blake — June 29, 1919 – June 19, 2012

A. E. "Bert Blake - June 29,1919 - June 19, 2012

A. E. "Bert" Blake - June 29, 1919 - June 19, 2012

by Bob

I guess deep down I knew that one day it would happen, but honestly, the news hit me harder than I expected – Albert Edward “Bert” Blake passed away today, 10 days short of his 93rd birthday.

Mr. Blake, and I apologize, I can’t bring myself to call him anything other than Mr. Blake, was one of a dying breed – a true horseman. I have no idea how you could begin to sum up his life, so if you will permit me this indulgence, I’ll tell you the story of one of our last meetings. It went something like this:

Did I mention that recently I had the pleasure of visiting Polo Park Race Track for the 19th running of the 1948 Canadian Derby? Well that’s what I did – not literally but figuratively speaking, that is exactly what it felt like.

I was fortunate enough to obtain a recording of the 1948 Canadian Derby, thanks to Downs CEO Darren Dunn and long time, now retired Downs and Horse Racing Commission employee Helen Penner. Ms. Penner knew Scotty Kennedy well, and these recordings, along with many other old photos, came to be in her possession.

A.E. "Bert" Blake First Win ever at ASD - Sparkling Wit,  June 23, 1958

First Win ASD - Sparkling Wit, June 23, 1958

On many occasions over the past couple of years I had the pleasure of meeting with Downs’ patriarch and legendary trainer Mr. Albert Edward Blake. On these visits we looked at old photos and talked about horse racing’s rich history in Manitoba, as well as life on the old Western Racing Circuit. On my last visit, I brought the recording of the 1948 Canadian Derby with me and shared it with Mr. Blake.

For about 15 minutes or so that night, I was transported back in time to “Old” Polo Park Race Track on September 4, 1948 for the Canadian Derby, because back in the day, Polo Park was the “Home of the Canadian Derby” – not Edmonton, where it is held now.

Together we listened to a recording of what I assume was the radio broadcast of the race. What a treat this was for me! It was as if Mr. Blake and I were seated right in the grandstand amidst the 12,000 fans that attended on that that glorious Saturday afternoon.

The Derby turned out to be a two-horse race between Scotty Kennedy’s filly Victory Gift and R. James Speers’ powerful colt Lord Fairmond. Victory Gift was the daughter of Kennedy's mare Omar’s Gift. Omar’s Gift, of course, was the legendary mare that Scotty “bought” for 37 cents from none other than Mr. Speers – but that’s a story for another day.

A. E. "Bert" Blake First Win Ever -- Overdraft, June17, 1954

First Win Ever - Overdraft, June 17, 1954

To say it was a pleasure to listen to the race with Mr. Blake doesn’t do the experience justice. I got the same feelings from this as I had as a child on Christmas morning – a marvelous blend of wonder and excitement. I listened intently to Mr. Blake’s “colour commentary” as he acted as my tour guide on this trip through time.

Mr. Blake provided so many illuminating comments that it was difficult to take it all in. I was like a kid in a candy store as he spoke of Scotty Kennedy -- “a great general manager for the time,” James Speers -- “the man who gave birth to horse racing in the west,” Duke Campbell -- “one of the greatest horseman to ever walk the prairies,” Judge Schilling -- “the man who gave me my trainers license,” and Lou Davies -- “Sam Pearlman gave birth to the racing digest and Lou kept it going after Sam,” and so many more personalities from the past.

Mr. Blake spoke fondly of these men and gave me a glimpse into the roles they played in our rich horse racing history. He was high in his praise for the filly, Victory Gift -- “nice horse,” who wired the field in the mile and a quarter classic -- just missing the track record by 4/5 of a second.

On this day, Victory Gift was ridden to perfection by veteran jockey Paul Bailey. Mr. Blake pointed out that the horse she beat, Lord Fairmond -- was no slouch. He was the pride and joy of Mr. Speers and was arguably the best horse he ever bred. Not to mention that earlier that year Lord Fairmond had finished second in the King’s Plate.

Young A.E. "Bert" Blake

Young A.E. "Bert" Blake

As a self proclaimed racing historian, any time I find information about the likes of Kennedy, Speers, Schilling, Campbell and Bailey, it is special, but it is quite another thing to hear about these men from someone who was there and actually knew them! After all, how many people have ever heard of Paul Bailey? And how many knew that he once worked the chalkboard at the Chicago Stock Exchange. Mr. Blake knew, and now so do you and I.

Thank you Mr. Blake, for taking me on a trip back in time. I used to think of you as an “Ambassador to the Past” and the Downs just isn’t going to be the same without you, Sir.

Researching horse racing has always been more fun and exciting than I can explain, but you made it that much better. I was never sure who or what would be around that next corner tomorrow or the next day, but forever…

You will be sadly missed.

13 Responses

  1. Jack Ackroyd

    Thank you, Bob, for your kind words about our Uncle Bert. On behalf of my Mother, Margaret, my Auntie(Eileen) and my siblings(in chronological order) – Ellen,Greg, Susan and Brian – and all our family, your story is greatly appreciated. It is comforting to know that Uncle Bert was so highly thought of in horse racing. I remember when Uncle Bert and Auntie taught me how to muck stalls when I was 9 or 10 and what fun it was to be with them in the stables. Once again, a heartfelt thank you. Sincerely, Jack Ackroyd

    • Bob Gates

      Thank you for your kind words. I am so pleased to hear from a family member. Can you tell me how Mrs. Blake is? And do you have any information about a service? I would appreciate any info you can share as people have been asking. Thanks again, Bob.

    • Bob Gates

      Jack, thank you for your kind words. I am so pleased to hear from a family member. Can you tell me how Mrs. Blake is doing? And do you have any information about a service, some people are asking. I would appreciate any information you can share. Thanks again.

      Bob Gates

  2. Ron Phelps

    Bob, a very well done article on Bert Blake.

    • Bob Gates

      Thanks Ron, your comments mean a lot to me!

  3. Susan Slawson

    I am one of Bert’s nieces. Thank you so much for posting this article. Loved the younger picture of Uncle Bert. I had never seen him with hair before!! He has certainly left a legacy.

    • Bob Gates

      Thank you Susan, I’m so glad you liked the article. I have sent a note to Jack asking about information on a service for your Uncle. Bob Gates

  4. Michele Murray

    I too want to express my thanks for this article honouring my Uncle Bert. When my sister and I begged my parents to let us begin riding lessons, Uncle Bert and Auntie Eileen could be counted on for support… and then later, when it was time to buy our own horses, we were so lucky to have help from them — in fact, they found each of us wonderful horses. Uncle Bert will not be forgotten.

    • Bob Gates

      You are so welcome. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Bob Gates

  5. Marie Collins

    Bert Blake is a horse racing legend. Anyone who worked with him is a better horseman/horsewoman because of it. He always taught us so much. I have many fond memories of him…

  6. Pat Duncan

    Your article about Bert Blake was so good. I agree with your total respect for the man. I wonder just how many people Mr. Blake has helped, mentored or cared for in his years. I would venture to guess about 90% currently at the Downs. Anyone who didn’t know him, well, sorry for their loss. Our 11 year old grandson used to sit in Bert’s office with him and Bert would not even talk about horses but told Dez about his experiences in the war. Dez took it all in like a little sponge. To this young boy the man was a giant and a part of history.

    • Bob Gates

      Thanks Mrs. D, I miss him already, but am very proud to look back and think about all the time that we got to spend together “talking shop.” He was one of the good ones!

  7. Chris and Val Smith

    Bert was a very enjoyable person to be with, as was Eileen, We had many happy times with them both in Lexington, Kentucky and when they visited us in England. Bert was a great cook and was rightly proud of his “Yorkshire Pudding”. We visited with Bert and Eileen some years ago when we had a visit to the ‘Downs’ with them.
    Bert was a great ambassador for racing and his knowledge was unsurpassed.

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