As he hit the 1/8-mile pole in Saturday’s $50,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Wayward Lass Stakes on the lead aboard eventual winner Magic Hour, jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., sensed an imminent threat above the din from a Tampa Bay Downs crowd of almost 4,000.
At that moment, Fire Assay and her jockey, Angel Serpa, were charging up the rail. The 48-year-old Allen called upon the experience he’s gained from more than 25 years in the saddle, almost 23,000 mounts and 2,950 victories to assure a one-length victory, with I Like It a neck back in third.
“At the top of the lane, I went a little wide because I know the track is a little better there on the tractor tracks,” Allen recounted Sunday. “I wanted to keep her going, but I could hear somebody coming up on the inside. I kind of glanced back and saw where (Fire Assay) was, and I brought my horse down just enough to kind of intimidate her a little bit.
“I heard Angel holler to let me know he was there, but I already knew where he was at. I think I kind of slowed (Fire Assay) down just enough. There is a fine line there; you can’t overdo it. Some jocks make it a little too tight where it is dangerous, but (the ability to make the correct decisions on a split-second basis) comes from riding so many years and having the experience to know how to do that and how far you can push it.
“You have to have control of your animal, for sure,” Allen added. “Lots of times, at the top of the stretch I float another horse out and send them to the parking lot, then duck back down and I’ve opened up three lengths on them.”
The Wayward Lass victory by the 4-year-old, Ian Wilkes-trained Magic Hour was one of four on the card Saturday for Allen and his eighth over a four-day span. He had two seconds and a third Sunday and is fourth in the track standings with 47 victories, trailing leader Daniel Centeno by 18.
Allen and Centeno are both four-time Tampa Bay Downs leading riders. They are also part of a high-quality over-40 crew of Tampa Bay Downs jockeys that includes Scott Spieth, fifth with 34 victories; Dean Butler, seventh with 27; meet latecomer Jose Espinoza, tied for 11th with 19; Breeders’ Cup Sprint-winning jockey Willie Martinez; and 50-something Jorge Vargas, who rode his eighth winner of the meet Sunday.
“Hopefully the younger jocks watch us and pick up on the things we do. That’s what I did when I was young. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Allen said.
Allen, who was riding Magic Hour for the first time, learned plenty from Wilkes before the Wayward Lass. He has had considerable success with Wilkes horses this season, and last year rode the trainer’s eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned, to victory in the Challenger Stakes locally.
Both Fort Larned and Magic Hour are homebreds racing for Janis R. Whitham of Leoti, Kan.
“Ian is a very good horseman, and when he gives me instructions, I try to follow them to a ‘T,’ because he really knows his horses and he knows what he wants done,” Allen said. “He told me to try to lay second but keep her out of the dirt (kickback). … then he told me when we got down the backside, let her go on and stride out and win the race. It worked out perfect.”
Allen – whose father, Ronnie Allen, Sr., is a long-time trainer, and whose brother Mike is also a jockey – will ride this summer at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he was fourth in the standings last year with 67 victories. After not riding from 2003-07 for personal reasons, Allen has returned to the peak of his skills, a testament to hard work and a positive attitude that makes his job seem more like play every day he arrives at the track.
“At my age, to get a second chance and to have the success I’m having is just amazing,” Allen said. “I go out mostly every morning to see people, get on their horses if they need me and let them know I’m happy to be there and I’d like to ride their horses. Everybody knows I try hard, so that helps a lot.
“I just thank all the trainers and owners and everybody who has given me a shot.”
Apparently a lot of the younger riders have been paying attention to the veterans, because Fernando De La Cruz, Huber Villa-Gomez and Antonio Gallardo each rode two winners on Sunday’s card.
De La Cruz, who is tied for second in the standings with Angel Serpa at 54 victories, won the second race on 3-year-old gelding Derby Boy for owner-trainer Rob Chabot and the fourth on 4-year-old gelding Favorite Slam for owner Julian De Mora and trainer Jorge Navarro.
Villa-Gomez captured the first race on 5-year-old mare May Mandate for owners Ernesto Scarpetta and Mary Lou Beam and trainer Margaret McVey. He returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh on 5-year-old gelding Wicked Dreams for owner Workingman’s Stable and trainer Louis C. Linder, Jr.
Gallardo won the third race on 5-year-old gelding Fabledzapper for owner Daniel Dougherty and trainer Gerald Bennett and the eighth on the turf on 4-year-old filly Channel the Green for owner Samuel H. Rogers, Jr., and trainer Joan Scott.
Thoroughbred racing resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. The feature is the seventh race, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf for 3-year-olds. The 2-1 morning-line favorite is the Michael Reavis-owned Rico Suave, 3-for-7 in his fledgling career.
Racing will be conducted on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the duration of the meet, except for Easter Sunday, March 31 (when Tampa Bay Downs is closed) and May 1, when there will be simulcasting only.
The Downs Golf Practice Facility will celebrate its 10th anniversary Saturday. Special events include clinics, free club-fittings, specials on food and range balls and pro shop discounts.
Since its 2003 opening, the 22-acre facility has become a year-round destination for golfers of all ages and ability levels, as well as anyone who enjoys playing a few races between sessions on the driving range, short-game area and 8,000-square foot putting green. The fully-lighted complex attracts more than 35,000 visitors a year.
Under the direction of PGA Class A professional Jon Johnson, last month’s third annual Golfest Presented by Tampa Bay Championship drew more than 3,000 attendees, up 40 percent from 2012. The event was highlighted by an appearance by LPGA Tour star Brittany Lincicome. Previous headliners were Annika Sorenstam in 2011 and instructor David Leadbetter in 2012.
The Downs Golf Practice Facility has been ranked among the top-100 ranges in the United States since its debut on Golf Range Magazine’s list in 2004.