Simply stating that trainer Albert (Bert) Blake is an institution at Assiniboia Downs would be a vast understatement. The man is a thoroughbred horse racing institution.
As far as the 90-year-old curmudgeon is concerned, however, "That's all bull... I don't like all this (media attention). Oh, people will read it today, but two days from now they'll forget about it."
Beneath that crusty exterior, however, Blake has a softer side, and he becomes more willing to talk about his greatest love (aside from his wife, Eileen), horse racing.
This 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, has retired as a trainer and now has only a one-third ownership of Grow Up. The Kentucky-bred five-year-old gelding (Victory Gallop, out of Our Sophia, by Belong To Me), won four of six starts last year, including the 1 1/16 mile $30,000 R.J. Speers Stake. On May 15, he ran fifth.
Equibase, which began compiling online horse racing records from all over the world in 1981, credits Blake with 1,084 starts, and more than $2.1 million earned from 1981-2009. During that time, his winning average was 25 per cent, compared to all other trainers at 16 per cent. What his lifetime numbers are, even he can't remember.
Blake never won the Downs' trainer of the year award, but he did win the $100,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby twice. In all-time Assiniboia Downs rankings, he is 17th with 48 meets from 1958-2006 and 356 wins.
His first Derby win was in 1993 with Royal Frolic, and then again in 2005 with Prime Time TV. "I should have won it three times. In 2006 I had The Max, and she got beat at the wire by Lord Kipling (from Minnesota).
"That's horse racing," he told the Free Press that day. "I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."
Track announcer Darren Dunn recalled Blake's 1993 Derby win. "This horse out of the east came here with a lot of pomp and prestige, and Royal Frolic whipped him. So at the post-Derby press conference, I go to congratulate Bert. Suddenly, a guy named Lloyd DeBruycker, of Montana, pops up, and says, 'sorry to interrupt you guys. Congratulations Mr. Blake. Is the horse for sale? 'What's your price? They're all for sale.' "
Debruycker offered US$110,000 and Blake eventually sold Royal Frolic for US$125,000, Dunn said.
"The thing that struck me," continued Dunn, "was here I am, and the Derby winner was sold right before my eyes. I don't think he had even been cooled off at the barn yet."
Dunn said that Blake separates his emotions from the business. "Bert respects the animals, but he knows 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."
Blake began riding and showing jumping horses as a boy around Brandon. In 1936, he packed his bags for England and the steeplechase circuit. "Yeah, I rode steeplechase," he said, confessing, "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. I learned a lot, and I rode against some good horses there, believe me."
After his discharge from the army in 1946, he bought some horses and hit the Prairie circuit as a trainer. "It was a weekly deal. We would race in Calgary one week, then go to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and finally back here." The longer meets in Winnipeg, Blake said, would eventually destroy the Prairie circuit.
"I don't know," he said when asked how many years he's been in the business. "I was a steward for 10 years (in Manitoba and Saskatchewan), and then I trained for 18 years in Kentucky." He returned to Canada in the '60s after suffering a heart attack.
One horse he has fond memories of is Clique, which he trained in 1963. The June Sifton-owned Clique 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. When we got him he was amazing, but we couldn't do nothing with him. I had a suicide galloper (Murray Duncan). He'd get so far with him in the morning, and that was pretty good. Generally, Clique was gone before he hit the first turn, so I used to give John Regan a 24 of beer every second day just to hold him (back in training) and take the edge off him."
For every Clique, however, they was a Doctor Rhythm. "He was a bad one," recalled Blake. "He'd dump you, leave you, go after you and everything else."
Blake really hasn't completely settled into retirement yet. "I'm not doing anything right now, and it's getting pretty difficult," he said, adding he's starting to get under his wife Eileen's feet.
Still, he says the past 90-plus years have been a good ride. "I don't have any regrets. You'll never need to hold a tag day for me."