12/15/2011 1:03PM

Q&A: Chris Block

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Reed Palmer Photography/Churchill Downs

In the best season of his career, he posted earnings of $3.57 million and won eight graded stakes, including five by turf mare Never Retreat and the Grade 1 Donn Handicap by Giant Oak. Block’s family, which races as Team Block, is headed by his father, David, and has become the leading breeding and racing operation in Illinois.

Birthdate: Dec. 10, 1966, in Champaign, Ill.

Residence: Deer Park, Ill.

Family: wife, Linda; son, David

Did you have any idea the year would unfold like it has? I had horses that I knew, if they performed up to their capabilities, if things went okay as far as training is concerned, races came up right, we could do some good. You never expect to do this good, but I think that it speaks volumes of the horses and for my staff. I can’t say enough about these guys who have helped me get me where I’m at, like Martin Martinez, my main assistant, and all my help that’s been with me for so many years in Chicago.

I always get the sense that talking about your accomplishments makes you a little uncomfortable. Is that fair to say? I appreciate people complimenting me and the operation, and it’s all well noted, but I just like to kind of stay in the background, stay at an even keel, enjoy what happens. I mean, I love training racehorses. It’s been a passion of mine all my life. I’ve been very fortunate to be given the opportunities by my family and from clients that have come along the last 10 years. But I guess I just don’t like to talk about myself.

Where are your horses right now? We’re kind of spread out: 20 in Chicago, seven at Gulfstream, the rest in Ocala, except for five with Neil Pessin at Fair Grounds. 

At what point did you decide to stay in Chicago and not move your operation to a winter track like so many people do? I’m a small stable. For example, I’ve got seven horses at Gulfstream right now. I couldn’t assemble more than 10 that make sense there. I can’t get to where it makes sense financially to put horses there. That’s number one. Number two, my son is in school, and I’m fortunate enough − my owners understand this − I want to be close to him and my wife till he gets into college. Then maybe Linda and I will start traveling in the winter. I like home. I like being home in Illinois. As long as David is in school, I believe in being close to him. The greatest gifts I’ve been given are David and Linda. They come first and foremost.

What’s it like training for your father? I’d say it’s probably the best thing a guy could ever ask for. I owe a great debt of gratitude to him. It’s been unique, my situation. A lot of guys had to work their way up from nothing, one or two horses, living out of a tack room. I didn’t have to do that. I worked for Bill [Mott] summers during college, and then Dad said, “Let’s get your trainer’s license and get you started.” That’s not the way you do things. We worked very, very hard to get this stable together. He never questions anything I do with the horses on a daily preparation, but we work very close together on where they run.

Talk about your development as a trainer: There’s no question, over the course of the past 10 years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned by mistakes, which I think everybody does. I’ve learned to kind of take things in stride and be patient. I think I’ve maybe matured in the process. I guess I have a lot more confidence than I did 10-15 years ago. Then, I was more questioning myself at times, more second-guessing myself when I made a decision. I’ve also learned to relax a little more. Don’t be so uptight. Don’t bury yourself so deep that you don’t know what’s going on around you.

You sit on the board of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Has the effort to bring slot machines to the racetracks in Illinois this year been frustrating? Being part of all that, I’ve learned a great deal about the legislative process. It’s been very frustrating not to be able to move the ball forward, and it looks like it’s going to be tough to do. It’s scary in a way. I see this industry in Illinois, looking two years out, being in a lot of trouble. I’m fully invested, as is Team Block. I love Arlington Park, I love Hawthorne. It’s home, it’s where we race. But I see trouble brewing in if we don’t have something done. I think the long-term success of the industry is in serious jeopardy. With that goes my operation and my career, and I’m going to have to take a look at where I go.

Giant Oak has teased so many times, threatening to become a really top-class horse, but then failing to deliver. Is he why you’ve lost your hair? Part of it is hereditary. Part of it has been Giant Oak. But no, really, I do have him figured out. He’s a one-run, rely-on-the-pace kind of horse who needs a good trip. If all that works out, he’s going to come with his run. I’ve tweaked his training schedule, tweaked the way we’ve ridden him in races, but it ends up the same. I haven’t seen any difference in him when I’ve changed what I do.

Do you ever bet? No, I’m not a gambler. When I was young, maybe a very, very little, a couple of dollars on the Kentucky Derby or something. I can read the Racing Form when it comes to looking at a race, but I’m not a very good handicapper. When I buy a DRF I look at the races my horses are in. But I do look at the better races around the country.

Who’s the Horse of the Year in 2011? I don’t know. It’s so wide open. Tizway? Do you say Drosselmeyer? I just don’t know. I seriously can’t make a call. My dad says My Miss Aurelia. I can’t see that, but I suppose in a year with no solid choice, she’s something to consider. It’s just a tough call.

What was your best moment of 2011, racing-wise? It was the day that Never Retreat won the Jenny Wiley [a Grade 2 race at Keeneland]. My dad had hung himself out there with the investment he made buying her, thinking if he could get her even a Grade 3 win, it’d be fantastic. The look on his face when she won that race is something I’ll never forget. I can picture it in my head right now. It was one of his biggest wins ever.