This past Sunday I woke up early, very early, and poured myself a coffee. I retreated to our deck to enjoy the morning sunrise. The only other living creatures awake at that time were a few chirping song birds. The air was still and all was calm as I fell into a trance-like state.
For no particular reason my thoughts turned to Eileen and Albert Blake. It wasn't long before I realized that Friday, June 19 marks the third anniversary of Mr. Blake's death. At this point it's probably important to explain that I have an affliction that is a curious one. I am prone to what I like to call "mellow moments."
The Blakes were the subject of this moment. As I sat staring off into space, I fondly recalled what special people they were and how lucky I was to have known them.
My first meeting with the Blakes was in October 2009 at their condo on Cloutier Drive in St. Norbert. Ivan Bigg and I had arranged to meet with Mr. Blake for a joint interview. Ivan was working on a piece for the Insider and I was doing research on the history of horse racing in Manitoba.
The first thing that struck me as we walked in the door was all of the racing memorabilia. Their home was adorned with trophies, mementos, awards, paintings and horse photos. Some were pictures of horses he had worked with: Royal Frolic, Prime Time TV and Nifty and others were famous equines whose names were known to even those who didn't follow the sport closely: Secretariat, Ruffian and Majestic Prince.
Time flew that night and before we knew it three hours had passed. Blake regaled us with his exploits from the time he went overseas during the Second World War through his experiences at Polo Park race track and his many years at Assiniboia Downs dating back to opening day in June 1958.
We accomplished a lot that night, but I have a passion for old photographs and I didn't get the chance I was hoping for to look through his albums. From what little I did see, I just knew I had to come back and spend some serious time going through his pictures. As we were preparing to leave Mrs. Blake said that I was welcome to come back anytime.
Well that was all I needed to hear! Needless to say it didn't take me long to call and arrange another visit.
From 2009 to the time of his death in 2012, I visited the Blakes at least a dozen times. On my second visit I went through his photo albums, which were totally golden. He was kind enough to lend me his albums so I could scan the pictures. In the end I have as a part of my racing photo collection all of Mr. Blake's pictures.
Subsequent visits saw Mr. Blake and I meeting in his den and talking about all things racing. The den visits usually included Mr. Blake and myself, but on occasion Mrs. Blake would join us and help supplement her husband's memory. The time we spent together was a treat. Stories and sipping whiskey, does it get any better than that? Oh, and come night's end there was always baking, cookies or some other homemade offering.
Mrs. Blake was so sweet! On one occasion she encouraged me to bring my wife, Kathy along on my next visit. I did, and so it was that Kathy and Mrs. Blake enjoyed each other's company in the living room enjoying a gin and tonic, while Mr. Blake and I talked shop and shared a whiskey. Mrs. Blake was a gracious hostess and a caring and sincere lady, who had a way of making her guests feel welcome!
Mr. Blake was so free in his sharing of information and stories from yesteryear; to me he was an "Ambassador to the Past."
In our visits I learned that he enlisted in September 1940 and went overseas in October 1942. On the subject of war he said that "you were never scared in a crowd of your own." While in England he managed to mix horse business with his war duties and upon his discharge from the Armed Forces in January 1946 he started training thoroughbreds locally. Officially, he got into the business of training after fellow horseman Dan Kennedy recommended to presiding steward Judge G. W. Schilling that Blake be granted a licence.
Contrary to popular belief he never raced at Whittier Park which held its last meet in 1942. He got his start at old Polo Park, scoring his first win with Overdraft on June 17, 1954.
In between Polo Park's closure in 1956 and the Downs opening in 1958 he and Eileen Grace Murray were married on December 2, 1957.
He was front and center when the Downs opened on June 10, 1958, saddling Present Day in the first race. The horse didn't win, but Blake's career was in full swing. His first win at the Downs came on June 23, 1958 when his Sparkling Wit found the winner's circle.
In the early 1960s Blake took a breather from training. He explained that the purses were poor and it was difficult to make a good living from the business of training horses. So he moved upstairs to the press box and took a job as a Steward, where he made a better living for his family. Over his early years at the Downs he was a patrol judge, horse identifier, clerk of the scales, Steward, worked in the racing secretary office and with the HBPA - this in addition to owner/trainer.
Eileen Blake won the first ever Powder Puff Derby in 1960 on their horse, Present Day. Mrs. Blake was a good horseman in her own right but suffered a serious accident in 1966 when she was thrown from her horse. The injury was slow to heal and dogged her for the rest of her life.
Mr. Blake's father had died in 1941 at the youthful age of 57, leaving his mother to fend for herself until her death in 1970. Over the years several opportunities presented themselves to Blake, who was an only child, but he never seriously considered them because it was important for him to be there for his mother.
It wasn't until after her death that he felt he was in a position to venture out. In 1973 he sold the family farm, Parkway Breeding Farm and moved to Kentucky, with Eileen at his side. They lived in Lexington for about 10 years, where they were still very much involved in the horse racing business.
He was 65 when he suffered a heart attack and returned to Manitoba in 1984 and he eased his way back into the local racing scene.
A. E. Blake fast facts:
- In June 1972 Blake saddled his 100th winner at the Downs, Seaneen Girl for Harry Currie.
- In 1974 Governor Wendell Ford of the Commonwealth of Kentucky granted Blake the commission of "Kentucky Colonel."
- Blake "met" the one and only Ruffian when he visited Belmont Park. He was standing in front of her stall when with her trainer, Frank Whiteley warned Blake about her "mean" disposition. Sure enough the multiple graded stakes winner and Hall of Famer took a nip out of his shoulder.
- He worked for some of the best owners a trainer could ever wish for, John & June Sifton and Saskatoon's Bill & Robert Mitchell.
- He won two Manitoba Derbys, in 1993 with Manitoba-bred Royal Frolic and again in 2005 with Prime Time TV. He narrowly missed two other Derby victories in 2004 and 2006 when prerace favourites, Shanghied and The Max ran third and second respectively.
- The Winnipeg Free Press published a list of individuals from our province who made a difference and left an indelible mark and Blake's passing in 2012 was one of those that was duly recognized.
- Blake was always one to train his horses into condition rather than simply run them to get fit.
- Blake subscribed to the adage that there was "something about the outside of a horse that was good for the inside of a man."
Horse Racing according to Bert Blake:
- On Jim Speers, Blake said that while at Polo Park Speers would frequently eat at the "cookhouse" (track kitchen) because he wanted to be sure that people in the backstretch were being treated to good food.
- Route horses had to be slow-galloped over long distances and given a good open gallop after seven furlongs and always finish with a good kick.
- Common mistake - hosing down a horse too often early in the year. He felt that some owners were just too lazy to keep them clean.
- Sydney Halter - his word was his bond. Halter was the best Horse Racing Commissioner, fair but tough.
- Scotty Kennedy - a great general manager for the time.
- Bobby Stewart - best rider at the Downs bar none. He had a clock in his head and no one could switch sticks like Bobby.
- Blake was also a big fan of "Birdie." He said that jockey Larry Bird and his wife Sandra were good people.
- Bob Watt - Blake had tremendous respect for fellow trainer "Soft Shoe" known for his dancing ability and called him a man of great character.
- When one of his horses would come up a little short in a race, he loved to say that the horse was left with "too much to do," not so subtly shifting the blame for the loss onto the rider.
- Blake acknowledged that he wasn't good with people's names. He explained that was because he "never had to run'em in a race."
Albert Blake had his health issues, but he never let them dictate his life's path. After all, he had been dealing with a fragile ticker for more than 30 years.
Oddly enough it wasn't his health issues that took their toll on him, it was his partner-for-life, Eileen's poor health that posed challenges that the stoic Blake found difficult.
In 2011 Eileen's health weakened to the point where she was hospitalized, leaving her faithful husband to face the grind of daily hospital visits, fending for himself and spending nights alone. This was a situation that was totally foreign to both of them.
During one of our many chats, I asked him how he was doing and I got something I wasn't expecting. An honest and sincere answer and it caught me off-guard. In what had to be a weak moment for him, he confessed that the nights were the toughest. He admitted to being lonely, not just alone!
He explained that Eileen slept a lot and her goods days were now being out-numbered by the bad ones. Her memory was starting to fail to the point where she didn't always recognize him. With this confession, I could see that our tough as nails curmudgeon was weakening.
On June 19, 2012 Mr. Blake succumbed to a heart attack, 10 days short of his 93rd birthday. What happened next was predictable, two weeks later Eileen, joined her beloved "Bert." They were together again - the way it was always meant to be.
Eileen Grace and Albert Edward Blake, the "first couple" of Assiniboia Downs, were gone, but in death they had been reunited!
I can't be sure what brought on this mellow moment, but I'm grateful for it. As I sat on our deck my mind returned to the present, the morning went silent, my coffee cold and I realized how much I miss them both.
The Blakes were special people and they are gone.
All that remains now are mellow moments and memories.