by Bob Gates
Owner, trainer, philanthropist. Now there are three words you don't usually see together, at least not in the world of horseracing in this part of the country. Owner, trainer – sure. But philanthropist? And then along comes horseman, Nathan "Nick" Block.
Nick Block was a part of the sport we all love for more than 30 years, right up until the final year of his life. Perhaps you will remember some of the thoroughbreds that raced in his colours: Blow Your Top, Lands Harvest, Sed Rate, Thorn River and No More Foolin? I know most of you will remember his best horse, multiple stakes winner Scarlet Rich, but more on him in a bit.
Nick Block was a private man, so doing the research necessary to tell his story proved challenging. Nick was a travelling clothing manufacturer's agent and he owned a grocery store in Stonewall, but he loved the ponies. I contacted some of the people who knew the man and found what I could, but there were not alot of his old buddies still around.
As for the people I spoke with, each had their own stories of meals and memories shared, but given Nick’s desire to keep to himself and lead a more quiet life, the retelling of these remembrances feels like a betrayal to the man.
Nick acquired a great deal of wealth during his lifetime and had a penchant for paying for things he bought, big or small, in cash. There was even a subtle suggestion he may have been a holocaust survivor, but when all was said and done, Nick loved horses and racing them made him feel good.
Nick was close to his family, which consisted of his wife, Olga or "Slim" as he called her, and his sisters, Jean, Fay and Pearl. I'm told that his sisters never married and lived together on Brock Street. I'll let his racetrack friends share memories of a great guy who loved horses and racing.
Bob King paddocked Scarlet Rich for Nick and spoke of Nick's "breakfast meetings" with "Red" Johnson, Sandy McPherson and people from the Bonanza Stable. Then there were the stakes victory celebrations with his buddies, usually at the Beefeater, Hy's or Ray & Jerry's. Nothing but the best and all were on Nick, of course.
In the old days Nick was stabled with Wayne Elias. Wayne said they went for breakfast often, but Nick never let him pick up the tab. Wayne's wife, Donna remembered Olga's distinctive hairdo, a French roll and never, ever was a hair out of place.
Irwin Driedger described Nick and Scarlet Rich as class acts. They were a good fit for each other, both were cool, calm and nice to be around. Nick and Rich loved what they did and seemed to get better with age.
My thanks to all of you for sharing your memories!
Nick was a thoroughbred man to be sure, but he gave harness racing a go in 1988. This was new to him and he needed assistance getting started in the sulky business. So, who you gonna call?
The most knowledgeable person around, of course. In Nick's case that meant contacting Marg Homenuik, who was one of the best in the world of standard breds. Nick had a fair amount of success with a nice horse by the name of Emperor Hunter, but he had too much thoroughbred blood in him to stick with harness racing. Still, it gave him something to do in the winter of 1988-89.
And then there was Scarlet Rich. Nick owned and trained the gelded son of Richmond Grays out of Scarlet Sequin by Cohoes. Scarlet Rich was as consistent a runner as they come. He was a $3,700 yearling who won in excess of the magical benchmark of $100,000 for Nick.
Rich's traditional move was to catch the pace setters mid-stretch and then pull away from the field. If the big gelding was within striking distance at the top of the lane -- within three to six lengths -- you just knew he was going to be there by the time the field got to the wire.
Scarlet Rich won 20% of his races and finished in the money over 50% of the time. Seven of his 26 lifetime wins were stakes victories, all of them at the Downs. And how's this for a record:
He won the R. J. Speers in 1979 and 81 and finished second in 1980 and 82. He won the Maple Leaf Handicap in 1981 and 82 and came second in that race in 1978 and 79. He also won the River Park Handicap in 1979 and finished third in that race in 1980, 82 and 83. And on October 22, 1981 Scarlet Rich set a track record for 1 5/16-miles at the Downs, that still stands today.
The love of Nick’s life, Olga passed in March 1990, and he lost his sisters Fay and Pearl some time previously. After Slim was gone, Nick only had sister, Jean, who died in February 1991. With no family left and his deteriorating health, Nick lost his zest for life and passed away in May 1991.
On Nick's passing, Free Press columnist Reyn Davis said it nicely:
"The racing fraternity was saddened by the loss of Nick Block. His enthusiasm for the sport lasted until his death. A friend, he will be missed."
As much as Nick Block was a private man, in death he did something that would see his name live on in perpetuity. Over his life, Nick acquired more money than he could spend. In May 1996 he made headlines as the "mystery man" who willed $1.1 million dollars to the Manitoba Kidney Foundation. To put his generosity in perspective, the Kidney Foundation explained that this was more than twice the total endowments they had received in 20 years.
Other than the fact that a staffer at the Health Science Centre remembered Nick’s regular visits to the dialysis unit, no one seemed to know much about him. Even the administrator of the seniors’ residence where he resided for the last year of his life didn’t know much about the man. Given his health issues, which required him to have dialysis three times a week, and with no family, his donation to the Kidney Foundation made sense.
I never envisioned the circumstances that would see one of these blogs stories making reference to William Shakespeare. History, horseracing and the Bard? Come on, really? But horseman Nathan, "Nick" Block sets this up nicely.
The quote is from Julius Caesar, when Mark Anthony gives his Friends, Romans and Countrymen soliloquy.
"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."
Nick Block's philanthropic gesture ensured his "good" was not interred with his bones at the Rosh Pina Cemetery on north Main Street, but lives on in the form of the Kidney Foundation's Nathan Block Research Endowment. Nick has been gone now for 27 years, yet his generous gift…
Continues to give, year after year.