Only 10 days before his 93rd birthday, trainer Albert E. (Bert) Blake has left the paddock for good, having died Tuesday in the Victoria General Hospital following a stroke and heart attack about 10 days prior. He leaves his wife, Eileen, to mourn his passing. The couple had no children.
"Bert was a one-of-a-kind model if there ever was one," said Assiniboia Downs CEO and track announcer Darren Dunn Wednesday. "He was an old-school horseman who could bring that wisdom and skill to this modern era of racing."
Dunn said there was no one in the backstretch whose career hadn't been touched by Blake in some positive way. "He was responsible for showing a lot of people how to survive in this game, and how to thrive in it. He wasn't one who would sit on his wisdom, that's for sure. He was a mentor to so many."
"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," said Assiniboia Downs historian Bob Gates in his Wednesday blog ASD On Track (www.assiniboiadowns.com/blog/).
Born on June 29, 1919, Blake, who often spoke fondly of his early days of watching and later working at the races in Winnipeg at Wittier Park (1924-1958), was a Manitoba horse-racing institution. As far as he was concerned however, "That's all bull," he told the Free Press in May 2010. "I don't like all this (media attention). Oh, people will read it today, but two days from now they'll forget about it."
He never won the Downs' trainer-of-the-year award, but he did, however, win the $100,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby twice, and in all-time Assiniboia Downs trainers' standings, he is 19th, with 356 wins in 48 meets from 1958 to 2006.
His first Manitoba Derby win was in 1993 with Royal Frolic, and then again in 2005 with Prime Time TV. "I should have won it three times," he growled in 2010. "In 2006 I had The Max, and she got beat at the wire by Lord Kipling (from Minnesota).
According to Equibase, which began compiling online horse-racing records from all over the world in 1981, the retired Brandon-bred horseman, who was part of the Canadian forces that stormed Juno Beach in Normandy on D-Day, and was personally decorated by King George VI, had 1,084 starts, and more than $2.1 million earned from 1981 to 2009. During that time, his winning average was 25 per cent, compared to all other trainers at 16 per cent.
Blake began riding and showing jumping horses as a boy in the Brandon area. In 1936, he packed his bags for England and the steeplechase circuit. "Yeah, I rode steeplechase," he said, in 2010. "I love that the best."
Later, while stationed near Epsom Downs in England during the war, he was able to gain work galloping horses in his off-hours at the famed Oval. "That was good," he had recalled. "I learned a lot, and I rode against some good horses there, believe me."
Dunn said in a 2010 interview Blake was able to separate his emotions from the business. "Bert respected the animals, but he knew you don't need to get attached to them. He's always treated it like a business, and he's one of the few who can honestly say he's made a profit."
One horse Blake was especially fond of was a gelding named Clique, which he trained in 1963. The June Sifton-owned horse set the seven-furlong record at the Downs in one minute, 24 seconds. He also won the Wheat City mile in 1:35 and the nine-furlong Gold Cup in 1:49.2.
"I think he won every race we put him in," said Blake.
"Where do you find someone today who can tell you live stories from Whittier Park?" mused Dunn. "Bert could because he was there. He was the last person we had here who was connected to that era. He's irreplaceable that's for sure."