The topsy-turvy nature of a jockey’s existence came into play recently for four-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion Ronnie Allen, Jr. During a span of seven racing days, from Jan. 4-14, he rode only two winners, the kind of mini-slump that might send a less-experienced jockey spiraling into crushing self-doubt and rigorous analysis.
Rest assured, Allen has been there, done that since starting his career in 1983. Beginning his 30th full year (he did not ride from 2003-2007 for personal reasons), the youthful-looking 52-year-old has experienced countless thrills and his fair share of heartbreak to be in his current position, second in the Oldsmar standings with 32 victories to Daniel Centeno.
Thus, from Jan. 15-25, Allen rode 14 winners over six racing days, including two three-win performances, to rope the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month award.
For slightly long-in-the-tooth patrons with a longer memory, it seemed as if it were 1985 again, when a 20-year-old Allen and his toothy grin beat a regular path to the winner’s circle and made us all feel eternally young.
Here’s the kicker, believe it or not: Both Allen and his agent, former jockey Paula Bacon, believe he is riding as well as he did in those ancient times.
“Maybe even a little better,” Bacon ventured.
“I ride the same as I did 20 years ago,” said Allen, perhaps not willing to stretch a listener’s skepticism, yet aware three decades of experience offset any loss of physical gifts and strength. “I feel like I’m still in my 20s. I work a lot of horses in the morning and stay fit that way, and riding a lot of races keeps me fit, too” (he has ridden 199 horses during the first 34 days of the meeting, 36 more than the next-busiest rider).
“In this business, one week you’re a champion, and the next week you can’t buy a win,” said Allen, who has 3,462 career victories. “A couple of weeks ago I was getting nothing but seconds, then the horses I was riding got in the right spots and it all turned around. So I looked like a star, but maybe next week I’ll be having trouble again.”
More often than not, Allen has played a leading-man’s role. He has won more than 80 stakes, sweeping the Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby in 1993 with Marco Bay, and rode in the 1985 Preakness, finishing unplaced aboard Sport Jet.
His first and fourth Oldsmar titles came 26 years apart (1984-1985 and 2010-2011, when he rode 109 winners), and he rode 110 winners during the 2013-2014 meeting, only to finish second in the standings to Antonio Gallardo.
Allen’s level-headed approach is any agent’s dream, and Bacon – his on-track rival from 1997-2001 – considers him a rock of stability and a premier selling point when it comes to competing for the best horses on the backside.
“Ronnie is a survivor in this business. He knows there are going to be a lot of lulls and a lot of highs, and he’s just as steady as can be through it all,” Bacon said. “His personality, his outlook, never change. He’s always upbeat. I mean, he can get upset, but it’s rare. A lot of jockeys get upset when they aren’t doing well, and their confidence wavers or they even start to make bad decisions in races. It doesn’t happen like that with Ronnie.”
Over the past few weeks, Allen has been on multiple winners for top trainers Kathleen O’Connell and Tom Proctor. Included among the horses he booted home was Proctor’s 4-year-old filly Earring, who was Group 2-placed in Ireland and Grade III-placed at Aqueduct. Allen worked her several times before her 2017 debut here on Jan. 21 in a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf allowance; he estimates he works about 80 percent of the horses he rides.
“We worked her a lot in company, and she wasn’t afraid to go up through a hole or anything like that, so I knew she was fine in traffic,” he said. “It worked out great in the race – we were sitting just off the pace, I had a perfect trip around the outside and I was riding plenty of horse. It was fun!” And the relative ease of the victory allowed him to file away his knowledge of the filly’s likes and dislikes for next time.
Proctor also used Allen that day on 5-year-old mare Enchanteresse, on a day the trainer was 3-for-3 on the turf. “Ronnie has become a pretty good grass rider (13-for-70 this meeting). That is where he has really improved,” Proctor said. “I can’t say enough about the job he does. To me, he is one of the good stories in racing, because he went through some hard times. He is a great athlete who is in a good place; a humble guy who is always in a good mood, but who always wants to win.”
Bacon can speak at length on Allen’s transformation when he enters the starting gate. Simply put, he is tough to get past when the stakes are high. “When I was riding against him, the thing I admired the most was his sense of pace,” she said. “Sometimes you get the idea Ronnie is busy on a horse down the backstretch and that he’s always riding. You get that sense when you’re riding against him, too, but the problem is, that isn’t really the case.
“I’d ease up to him thinking I’d just sit there, because he was already using his horse, but he really wasn’t. He has a way of making you think that, but you would never get by the guy in the stretch. It would drive me crazy, so instead of just coasting up to him, I’d try to rush by him real fast,” Bacon said.
Allen, who is engaged to Tampa Bay Downs trainer Maria Bowersock, hasn’t set a timetable for cutting back on his career. From May through early October, he rides at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he finished fifth in the standings in 2016 with 57 winners.
“Right now, I just want to keep winning races and make a good living,” said Allen, whose younger brother Mike also competes at Tampa Bay Downs. “I haven’t really thought about what I want to do after I retire, but hopefully that’s not for awhile.
“If I can keep doing it, I’m going to keep doing it.”
Around the oval. Jesus Castanon and Wilmer Garcia each rode back-to-back winners on today’s card. Castanon won the second race on Hereditary, a 6-year-old horse bred and owned by Phipps Stable and trained by Claude “Shug” McGaughey. Castanon added the third race aboard 4-year-old filly Wind Cheater, a homebred racing for owner Richard Perkins and trained by David Hinsley.
Garcia captured the fifth race with Macy’s Hideaway, a 3-year-old filly bred in Florida by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Victor Carrasco, Jr. Garcia added the sixth on the turf on 4-year-old filly Judy’s Chance, bred and owned by Judy Sessa and trained by Derek Ryan.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:55 p.m. Beginning next week, the Oldsmar oval will conduct racing five days a week, with Thursdays added to the mix on Feb. 9, 16 and 23.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
“Live It Up Challenge” contest starts Feb. 11. The fourth annual “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest begins Feb. 11, the track’s Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South, and runs through April 2. Players must register by 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Feb. 11 at www.liveitupchallenge.com to participate.
The “Live It Up Challenge” is a free online competition in which all wagers are mythical. Once registered, players log on each racing day and select one horse from either of that day’s randomly selected “Challenge Races.” Each day’s winnings are based on the win, place and show pari-mutuel payouts on a player’s selection.
Players lose a lifeline if their selection finishes out of the money, and a player is eliminated from the contest when they lose all their lifelines (said player remains eligible for the “Most Winners” prize). Lifelines can be purchased upon sign-up and on Feb. 17 and March 10.
Full rules are available on the contest website. The Grand Prize is a seat in the 2018 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship and $1,000. Second prize is $1,000 and third prize is $500.
There is also a $500 prize for the individual selecting the most winners over the duration of the contest.
“Hearts Reaching Out.” Preparations are underway for the 25th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, Dinner and Charity Auction, to be held Monday, March 6. The event benefits the Race Track Chaplaincy of America—Tampa Bay Downs Division and those individuals at the track served by the RTCA.
The RTCA—TBD Division golf tournament, which is a four-person scramble, will be played at Cheval Golf and Athletic Club in nearby Lutz, with an 11 a.m. shotgun start. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. on the first floor of the Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand, followed by the live and silent auctions.
Items to be bid on during the auctions include horse racing and sports memorabilia, signed photographs and paintings, tickets to sporting events and gift baskets. There will also be a raffle for a Corriente saddle donated by Wayne Baize, a popular Cowboy Artist. Raffle tickets are $10 and will be available at the Chaplain’s office on the Tampa Bay Downs backside in the days leading to the event.
Cost for the tournament, dinner and auction is $100, with a $20 cost for those attending only the dinner and auction. Groups or individuals can sponsor a hole with signage at the tournament for $125. Table sponsorships for the dinner and auctions are also available, and the chaplaincy is accepting donations.
For details, call the Chaplain’s office at (813) 854-1313 or RTCA—TBD President Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870.
Source: Tampa Bay Downs