Everything is just fine with Octave Blake, one of those elder statesmen of harness racing who are pointed to with pride by track press agents as "images" of the grand old days when the sport was pure sport and didn't make any money.
White-haired Ock Blake (nobody calls him Octave) is everything an image should be. Physically, he is as slight as when he was Princeton's 150-pound quarterback back in 1914 and 1915. In other ways, he stands tall with a distinguished career in business behind him and a proud record of racing horses that have won The Hambletonian, the Little Brown Jug and a score of other big stakes while carrying the blue-and-gold colors of Newport Stock Farm, founded by his father at the turn of the century.
Everything is just fine. Ock Blake has just passed his 71st birthday in good health and high spirits. He recently celebrated the anniversary of his marriage to Joan Johnston, whose six children by a previous marriage could not delight him more if they were his very own. He is enjoying his first year of retirement from the presidency of the Cornell-Dubilier Electric Corporation, the multimillion-dollar electronics manufacturing firm that he continues to serve as consultant. He is rounding out his 19th year as president of harness racing's Grand Circuit and is described by E. Roland Harriman, another great "image," as the most energetic president the Circuit ever had. He continues to have a hand in a bottled-water company in New York, a business in which his father, I. O. (for Israel Octave) Blake, built part of the fortune that enabled him to indulge a rich man's fancy for old-time harness racing and to found the Newport stable at Newport, Vt.
Relieved of his more pressing business obligations, Ock Blake does not now require Cornell-Dubilier's DC-3, but he has a six-place, twin-engine Beechcraft to fly him to Grand Circuit meetings from coast to coast as well as to his home in Pinehurst, N.C., his summer place in Canada and his penthouse in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he makes his headquarters during the 109-day meeting at Pompano Park. It is possible that Ock Blake could fly the Beechcraft himself if he wanted to, for he was a Navy flyer in World War I, just as he could (as a licensed owner-driver) work horses in the mornings. But Ock leaves the flying to a young pilot and the training of horses to Del Cameron.
Even so, Ock Blake does a lot of flitting about for a man who has theoretically retired, and friends who have not seen him recently will want a report on the state of his tan gabardine suit. As observed along the rail at Pompano Park's training track this spring, it appeared to be in splendid condition. In fact, it looked like it might have at least another 100,000 miles in it. (Frances Van Lennep of Castleton Farm dubbed it the "100,000-mile suit.") It seems as resistant as ever to cigarette ashes, coffee and gravy stains, ice-cream-cone drippings and the dust kicked up by the trotters and pacers at the morning workouts.
Ock Blake's tan gabardine is the most famous suit in harness racing. There are all sorts of theories about it. There are people who profess to believe that he bought it sometime after his graduation from Princeton and has been wearing it ever since. Others scoff at that idea and declare that the tan gabardine Ock wore in the 1920s had a belt in the back. Today's suit has no belt. Phil Pines, director of the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, N.Y., is convinced that the current suit is the same he painted in oils after Blake's Newport Dream won The Hambletonian in 1954. Furthermore, Pines is willing to go on record as stating that the suit was then at least 10 years old. Pines feels very strongly about the suit. He has urged Ock Blake to donate it to the Hall of Fame so it may hang there with the Newport colors.
Del Cameron, who drove Newport Dream to victory in the 1954 Hambletonian (as well as Egyptian Candor for Mrs. Stanley Dancer last year), said recently at the Newport stables in Pinehurst that he knows for a fact there are at least half a dozen identical gabardine suits—all complete with vests—which Ock Blake wears winter and summer. The vest is an important detail, because it adds pockets and enables Ock Blake to store an amazing variety of pencils, scraps of paper, buttons, cigarette holders and lighters, stopwatches, spectacles, an unfailing supply of Viceroys and more miscellaneous gimmicks and gadgets than the Man from U.N.C.L.E. can produce in a tight spot.
E. Roland Harriman, seated in his office at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York, skirted the question of the suit with the skill you would expect from one of the most celebrated investment bankers in Wall Street. He appeared to be thinking hard for a moment before he said, finally: "Let me say that Ock Blake always stays with us when he is in Goshen. Now, he always has a tan gabardine suit with him. Whether he has more than one, I would not want to say. I will say this. Ock Blake has a blue suit. Quote me on that. When he married Joan, she insisted he buy one for the wedding."
Harriman chuckled. "That reminds me of something. Before the wedding Ock paid me a visit. When he was leaving, he gave me an envelope for Wood, our butler, and asked me to express his thanks for the nice things Wood had done for him. I delivered the message to Wood. He said, 'Mr. Blake is a very fine gentleman and I enjoyed being of service to him. I like to take good care of elderly people."
Harriman threw back his head and laughed. "Wood suddenly mumbled some apology and bowed out of the room. Apparently he had just realized two things. One was that 'elderly' Ock Blake was a bridegroom-to-be. The other thing was that Ock and I are exactly the same age."
Norman Woolworth, owner of Clear-view Stables and partner with his longtime friend David Johnston in Stoner Creek Stud at Lexington, Ky., looked genuinely shocked when a dispatch from Lexington was placed before him on his desk at his Madison Avenue offices in New York. The dispatch read: REPORT HERE WOOLWORTH AND JOHNSTON USED BLAKE HOME IN PINEHURST ONE WINTER FEW YEARS AGO AND RUMMAGED THROUGH CLOSETS COUNTING GABARDINE SUITS.
"What a horrible thing to say!" exclaimed Woolworth.
"Is it true?" he was asked.
"What is true," said Woolworth, "is that Dave Johnston and I were caught in a 14-inch snowstorm. Every hotel in Pinehurst was filled. We couldn't even get in Howard Johnson's. We couldn't sit out and freeze, so we decided that Ock Blake wouldn't mind if we used his place. We counted on a housekeeper being there, but she was snowbound at her own home. So we broke a pane out of a basement window and climbed in. We were famished, so we went directly to the kitchen and started raiding the ice box. Just as we got started on a cold roast, the phone rang. It was Ock."
Woolworth made a pretense of looking for something in a bottom drawer of his desk. He came up with a box of Kleenex and gave a first-rate imitation of a man with a sneezing fit.
"What did Ock Blake say?"
"I think," said Woolworth, "he said, 'Who is this? A burglar?' I told him, 'No, Ock. Not in the usual sense of the word. This is Norman Woolworth. Dave Johnston and I are snowbound here and we can't get into a hotel. We broke a window in your place and put a piece of cardboard where the pane was. We want to apologize, but we didn't think you would mind, really.' "
"Was Ock Blake mad?"
Mad?" exclaimed Woolworth. "I never heard a man so obviously touched. He said to me, 'Norman, what you and Dave have done gives me a warm feeling all over. The fact that you felt that you would be welcome at my home under any circumstances is an example of the kind of camaraderie that could only exist between horsemen. Thank you, my dear boy, and if there is an arrest for breaking and entering, don't worry about it. I'll be down to fix it come the spring thaw."
"So you didn't go through the clothes closets?"
Again, the look of shock and pain. "Could a man sink so low?" asked Wool-worth.
"Will you guess then—just guess—how many tan gabardine suits Ock Blake owns?"
Woolworth smacked his forehead. "Why didn't I think of this before! I got a great idea for you. Do you really, seriously now, want to know how many tan gabardine suits Ock Blake has—or has had?"
"Then," cried Woolworth, "go ask Ock Blake!"
There seemed to be no other way. But no man can be expected to reveal such personal matters to a perfect stranger. Octave Blake's confidence had to be won.
The campaign began during the closing days of the meeting at Pompano Park. There were dinners in the clubhouse every evening (Mrs. Blake was up North) and meetings at the training track in the mornings. Everything under the sun was discussed—except suits of tan gabardine.
One evening at dinner Ock Blake got to talking about his horses down through the years. "I was always getting odd ideas," he said. "There was the time I got the notion that harness horses could be handicapped just like running horses—by putting weight on them. I challenged Shep [L. B. Sheppard, owner of the famous Hanover Shoe Farm in Pennsylvania] to a race between my Britannic and Vita Lee. I put 19 pounds on Shep's horse and nothing on mine. I guess it was pretty good handicapping, as it turned out. We had a dead heat in 2:02[3/5]."
He fussed with his food, started to take a bite and then decided to have a cigarette instead. "I never paid more than $25,000 for a horse. I bred Newport Dream, my Hambletonian winner. He was by Axomite out of Miss Key. He had only one race as a 3-year-old before the Hambletonian. I knew he had good bloodlines. Not only that, but I knew how his dam raced. That's an important fact that some of the current young breeders overlook. It's not only the mare's record that's important—it's how she races. It's possible that a mare could have a fair record on paper, but in some of her good races she might have been 'sucked along' with the leaders. I remember things like that."
He took a bite and chewed slowly. "I've had some great horses. My Axomite shared second place after Roland Harriman's Titan Hanover in the 1945 Hambletonian. Forbes Chief, he won the Brown Jug. Woody Lawlis, the director of public relations of this track here at Pompano, was telling me that I've had more two-minute-mile horses than any other breeder in my kind of comparatively small breeding operation. That Woody Lawlis knows more about bloodlines and breeding than most anybody in harness racing. I believe he knows as much as I do.
"But right now my stables are in the rebuilding stage. You've got to expect that now and then. I guess you could compare us to the Mets—except that we've had our great years and the Mets are still looking for their first one. Right now I've got about 20 horses in training at Pinehurst, two more training here and one claimer I'm racing here. I own 14½ broodmares and 10 shares in Newport Dream, who's standing at Hanover."
He crushed out his cigarette, took up his knife and fork and polished off his now cold mixed grill and called for cheesecake and coffee. A small parade of visitors kept coming to the table, including a banker from Martha's Vineyard, a Hambletonian director from Illinois, Fred Van Lennep, president of Pompano Park and an apologetic-looking man who wondered if Ock Blake remembered him as a waiter at The Dunes in Pinehurst. Ock Blake did, indeed, and gave him a warm welcome.
One morning at the track, Ock Blake watched the horses in workouts, responding to greetings from drivers like George Sholty and Billy Haughton and Del Miller as they joined him at the rail from time to time. He chatted easily with perfect strangers who had all sorts of questions that seemed to please him. One said he'd heard that Ock had built a starting gate for trotters before the type in use today.
"Well," said Ock Blake, "I'll tell you. In those days we had the idea that an automobile should not be allowed on the track itself. I invented this sort of telescopic device that was built on a car that was driven outside the rail. The trouble was that when it was extended, it bobbed up and down and made the horses and drivers nervous. I think I could have solved that, but then Steve Phillips came up with a mobile gate mounted on a Model A Ford, the prototype of the gate we have today."
One of the drivers mentioned that Ock had introduced the helmets that they all now wear. "Yes, a lot of them objected at first," said Ock, "which shouldn't have surprised me, because I never wanted to wear a football helmet when I was at Pomfret School in Connecticut, and I felt the same way at Princeton later on. It was amazing that we didn't get more cracked heads in football in those days. We played 60 minutes, most of us. There was no platoon football. Of course, players, generally speaking, weren't as big as they are today. I was 150. Later on Albie Booth at Yale weighed about the same. One thing in those days, the quarterback—that's what I was, a 150-pound quarterback—the quarterback ran the team on the field. Plays weren't sent in by the coach. We just had 10 plays.
"But getting back to the driver's helmet in harness racing. I was concerned about drivers getting hurt. You know how I finally got them to wear helmets on the Grand Circuit? I'll tell you. I went to the wives. Do you understand? I told the wives about the possibility of bad spills during a race. I got the wives to have a talk with their husbands—and it worked."
Someone asked if Ock intended to continue indefinitely as president of the Grand Circuit. "No," said Ock Blake, "I want to retire this year. Wanted to last year, but they persuaded me to stay on."
(That was true enough. But two years ago there was a feeling among some of the Grand Circuit board members that it was time for Ock Blake to step down in favor of a younger man. The members planned their maneuver carefully. They had a plaque made for presentation to Ock at a banquet and counted on the surprise to throw him off balance just long enough for the new nomination to be made. But Ock got wind of the plan, stood up and said he knew all about it. He said also that he had his eye peeled for a worthy young successor but hadn't found one yet. "When I find him," he told the members, "I'll let you know. And now I'll take that plaque from under the table." There was nothing left to do but renominate Ock by acclamation and give him the plaque as well.)
Later in the day, seated in the shade outside one of the stables, Ock Blake greeted another old friend, Riley Couch, starter of many big races before the mobile gate came in. They reminisced for a while.
"Mr. Blake," said Riley, "have you noticed every spring there's a few more of the old faces gone? I'm 74, and an awful lot of my old friends are gone."
"Well," said Ock Blake, "you can't turn back the clock, Riley. But you know the old saying: the best way to live a long time is to select long-lived parents. My father was 89."
"That's a comforting thought to me, Mr. Blake. But say, how do you keep looking so young?"
Ock Blake rummaged in the pockets of his tan gabardine and fished out a cigarette and lighter. He lit the cigarette and puffed for a moment. "Riley," he said, "when I was a boy growing up. I was devoted to my father. I can remember whenever anything was troubling me—or troubling him, for that matter—he'd put his arm around my shoulder and say, 'Son, let's you and me sit down and talk horse' And we would. Yes, we would, Riley, and before you knew it we would be laughing away, all troubles banished from our minds. That's been my rule all through life. When the going is rough, put it out of your mind and just talk horse."
"That's a beautiful thought," said Riley Couch. He ran his thumbs up and down under his galluses and said, "Well, I'll mosey around and just take notice of what oldtimers have passed on since last spring. Goodby, Mr. Blake."
"Goodby, Riley," said Ock Blake.
In the silence that followed, a lighter note seemed to be indicated and, suddenly, the time seemed just right to bring up the matter of the tan gabardine suit and settle it once and for all. Was there just one gabardine suit? Were there 40? Was the suit he was wearing at this moment the same he had worn for the past 20 or 30 years?
Ock Blake smiled his crooked little smile. He seemed about to speak, but then he apparently thought better of it.
"You know," he said, his eyes twinkling, "people have had an awful lot of fun with this suit. I think it would be a shame to tell them that—" He stopped again. "I think it would be a shame," he continued after a moment, "to tell them anything at all. Let's keep them guessing. Let's just say that when the time comes Phil Pines will get this suit for the Hall of Fame if he wants it."
There was more horse talk, about the great trotters that time and time again have brought Ock Blake the only reward he ever has been interested in: a good race bravely raced. Ock has never placed a bet in his life. In looking back. he never seemed to be overly sentimental about it all. But his friends remember a scene in the winner's circle at DuQuoin last September, after Del Cameron—Blake's driver—had won The Hambletonian for another owner. There was the usual great excitement, pounding of backs, kissing of cheeks, clasping of hands as the Hambletonian trophy was presented. Almost nobody noticed the little man standing off to one side by himself. Those who did turned quickly away. For, obviously, all the wonderful memories had suddenly become too much for the little man standing all alone.
Tears—big tears—were rolling down his cheeks and falling on the lapels of his tan gabardine suit.