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.
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.
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.
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.