Saturday, October 01, 2011

From Dirt To Sky: New Jersey man goes from career as a jockey to a passion flying planes

Henry Block, 77, of Northfield, was a jockey at the Garden State Park Racetrack for more than 20 years. This winter, he said he will finally fly the airplane he built in Florida. 
Photo Credit:  Wallace McKelvey

Provided by Henry Block

The Pitts Experimental airplane Henry Block built for eight years with his brother will fly for the first time this winter. Block, 77, of Northfield, was a jockey at the Garden State Park Racetrack for more than 20 years. This winter, he said he will finally fly the airplane he built in Florida.

Not for his 20-year-old life nor his then-brief career as a jockey.

“The gate opened and my horse doubled over, and I doubled over him,” he said. “Next thing I saw there was no horse, just the ground coming up to meet me.”

In a daze, Block crawled the 15 feet to the edge of the track, where bystanders pulled him under the rail and toward nine long months of recovery. After the 1953 accident that broke three vertebrae and left him paralyzed for over a week, Block continued racing horses for 22 years.

Fifty-seven years later, the Northfield man still doesn’t have much time for fear.

His eyes, once focused on the dirt expanse of the Garden State Park Racetrack, are now directed skyward. This winter, Block will fly the Pitts Experimental kit plane he’s been building the last eight years for the first time.

“The next time you see me, I’ll be up in the air,” he said.

Block’s new passion was an outgrowth from his old.

“I rode some pretty high-priced horses — today in New York, tomorrow in Chicago,” he said. “So, I rented a plane and a pilot, and no sooner I’d get off the ground, I’d say ‘give me this son of a [expletive]’ and I’d fly it.”

And his first passion grew from his 4-foot-11-inch frame.

“I was too small to play football,” he said. “I was fast ... but they’d never give me the ball and my hands are too small to throw the ball.”

An honors student at Camden High School, Block ran away from home at 16 to pursue the only sport where his height wasn’t a liability.

“I had a future. I could have gone to an academic college and all that stuff,” he said. “But horse racing was exciting — horse racing was a sport.”

Until he was 18, old enough to legally be on the track, Block said he would slip under fences or hitch rides in the trunks of cars. Once there, he and other young “wannabe jockeys” would steal watermelons from nearby farm fields to sell to the horse trainers for beer money.

It was a run-in with one of the farmers that led to Block’s first racing-related injuries at age 16.

“The guy yelled, ‘Put those watermelons down,’ and my friend gave him a dirty gesture of some kind,” he said. Then, the farmer fired his shotgun.

“I couldn’t go to a doctor and say I got shot — I could get kicked out of racing,” he said. “So, I went to a local veterinarian at the track and he treated me with penicilin and a waterproof bandage.”

Four years ago, while undergoing an appendectomy, Block said the surgeon dug the remaining buckshot from his posterior. “I got it home in a little jar, soaking in alcohol,” he said.

Despite his trackside antics, Block was hired by a horse trainer at the DuPont family stables, where he was educated in horses and trained to be a jockey. He had been racing, and consistently winning, for nearly a year when his horse stumbled at the starting line, breaking the jockey’s neck.

The accident left Block paralyzed for nine days.

Even as he recovered — first at Cooper University Medical Center and then at home — he said he knew he would return.

Block said he still dreams of the sensation he felt when the feeling first returned.

“It starts farthest away from your heart, your feet,” he said. “Once in a while I dream my feet are on fire. I wake up, rub my feet, take a leak and go back to bed.”

In the next 22 years, Block estimates he won about 1,600 races and had 15 more serious injuries.

“I have blood clots in my leg, a chip taken out of this knee, a screw in this ankle, two screws in the other ankle,” he said. “I never broke an arm and I never broke a leg, but I broke everything else.”

In spite of the physical toll it took, Block said horse racing came naturally.

“It was the easiest thing I did in my whole life,” he said. “I had a good communication with horses, better communication than I had with most people.”

After retiring from racing, Block continued on as an agent, guiding other jockeys and recruiting two brothers — one an agent and one a jockey — into the business.

Now fully retired, he divides his time between Northfield and Florida, where he stays in the apartment — his “Condo del Garaje” — he built above a third brother’s garage.

“It’s very comfortable,” he said. “I don’t pay no rent, I don’t pay no taxes, I don’t pay no insurance, no water and no electric bill.”

It’s that brother, Ron, who paid for the kit plane. In exchange for building the plane — from dozens of cardboard boxes and 50 pages of blueprints — the brothers agreed to share the $45,000 plane during Block’s Florida stays.

“I love the heat, but I don’t go swimming,” he said. “I chase broads, I drink, I get drunk and I work every day on the plane.”

Last winter, Block said he and his brother started the plane’s Lycoming engine for the first time, but soon realized it had the same problem as the WWII-era Supermarine Spitfire.

“At certain things, like doing stunts or chasing Germans, the engine would quit,” he said. “It kept doing this until they got fuel injection.”

With the last of the repairs made and his sport license tests complete, Block said he’s ready to take to the sky.

“I don’t plan to make any stunts with this son of a (expletive),” he said. “I want to fly down to Key West for two days. I want to fly to Disney World. I want to fly it in nice weather and have some fun.”

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