The morning after riding four winners for the fifth time this season, Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., sounded a prophetic note when asked about his goal of winning a fifth track title.
“I’m just going day by day and doing the best I can,” Allen said. “If it happens, it happens, but Antonio (Gallardo, the runner-up in the standings) can get on fire next week and have a couple of four-baggers.”
If you define “next week” as starting on Sunday, Gallardo wasted no time proving Allen’s statement. The 26-year-old Spaniard scored four victories today, staying within hailing distance of Allen in the win standings, 82-74, slightly past the two-thirds point of the meeting.
Gallardo plans to continue to push Allen for the top spot, which acknowledging the difficulty of his quest. “I’m having a great meet thanks to my agent, Mike Moran, and all the trainers who have given me a chance, but it’s tough (to catch Allen),” Gallardo said.
“He has a lot of business and a lot of experience riding this track. Sometimes I get within three or four wins, and he wins four races the next day. This is only my second year here, and the more you ride here, the more you learn – whether the rail is best, whether it favors speed or come-from-behind horses. This track changes a lot from day to day.
“I think when I have more experience here, I’ll learn those things,” Gallardo added. “But I try to learn every day by watching (Allen and five-time champion Daniel Centeno), because they know this track a lot better than me. Either way I’m happy, because I’m having a great meet and I’ve won races for a lot of different trainers.”
Professional athletes are often their own worst critics, and Allen says he is just as prone to second-guess himself now after a defeat as he was in his heyday, when he won three Tampa Bay Downs riding titles in four years from 1984-88.
“I still do it all the time, because I like to win too much,” said Allen, who rode four winners on Saturday’s card for the fifth time this meeting to extend his lead in the jockey standings. “I’ll be watching a replay wondering what I could have done different, but it seems like I’ve mostly been making the right decisions.”
Allen’s Saturday haul included a textbook performance in the $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes on Glen Hill Farm’s 5-year-old mare Dress the Part, who rolled to a three-and-a-half length victory for her third victory here in three starts under Allen.
After the race, winning trainer Tom Proctor praised Allen for his ability to consistently place horses in the right position to launch their moves. Rest assured, a lot of other trainers have taken notice.
“Ronnie has been riding here for years, and he knows this track,” said trainer Ian Wilkes, whose filly Ambusher ran second in the Wayward Lass. Wilkes and Allen have combined for an impressive eight victories during the 2013-14 meeting.
“A lot of hard work goes into it,” said Wilkes, who used Allen on Fort Larned in their 2012 Challenger Stakes victory that ignited that horse’s successful Breeders’ Cup Classic campaign. “He gets out in the morning working a lot of horses, and that helps him figure out how the track is playing. And he is riding with a lot of confidence. The mental part is so important, because when you are happy and confident you get in a zone, and he is in a zone right now.
“You’re always happy to see someone with that kind of work ethic succeed,” Wilkes added. “Ronnie puts in the time and effort. I’ve never seen him refuse to ride a horse for anyone.”
Indeed, Allen leads all jockeys here with 359 mounts, along with his meeting-high 82 victories.
Part of that is attributable, naturally, to the fact everyone wants a piece of the track’s No. 1 jockey. But it is also testament to the 49-year-old Oldsmar resident’s lean, taut physique, boundless energy and unquenchable desire (Allen turns 50 on April 24).
“I don’t feel like 50 – 50 seems old to me,” Allen said, chuckling. Understandable, since several of his rivals here are barely more than half his age. “I don’t know what 50 is supposed to feel like. I’m healthy, I’m fit and and I feel strong. My mind still works good – I’m able to make the split-second decisions you have to make. I guess God is on my side.”
His agent, Paula Bacon – a rival of Allen’s during the 1990s – marvels at his physical condition. “His body seems to be holding up really well,” she said. “Most jockeys when they get older start getting more selective about which horses they want to ride, but he doesn’t. Or they don’t finish a race as strong. But he hasn’t lost a step.
“He is a gritty, gutsy rider who doesn’t mind riding any horse, doesn’t complain and rides aggressively,” Bacon said. “Every time he goes out there, he thinks he can win.”
Allen, who won the 1993 Tampa Bay Derby and Sam F. Davis Stakes on Marco Bay and rode in the 1985 Preakness, has 3,090 lifetime victories and career purse earnings of $33.6-million. He and his younger brother Mike, who has ridden 1,854 winners, are closing in on a combined 5,000.
Ronnie won Tampa Bay Downs riding titles in 1984-85, 1986-87 and 1987-88 before adding a fourth crown three years ago, when he rode 109 winners.
While riding high-quality stakes winners is the goal of every jockey, it is the meat-and-potatoes horses that have provided Allen with most of his sustenance.
“I love winning for the smaller outfits just as much, because I know how bad some of them need it and how much they appreciate it,” he said. “Without those outfits, there wouldn’t be a racetrack.”
Allen, a mainstay early in his career at the old Detroit Race Course as well as Tampa Bay Downs, believes this is the first time he has posted four victories as many as five times in a meeting.
“It seems pretty amazing, like I am still in a dream. Everything is working out so well for me,” said Allen, who is engaged to trainer Maria Bowersock.
“I know I get horses out of the gate well, and I’m always looking at where everyone else is and how I can make my move to get to where I want to be. The key is getting a horse on its feet and on the bit, and sometimes you have to be a little aggressive.
“Giving a full effort every day, every race, is half the reason why I’m where I’m at,” Allen said. “I try hard on every horse I ride, I ride hard for second, third and fourth place, and people appreciate that. If I got to the point where I wasn’t giving my all every race, it would be time to quit, but I don’t see myself getting to that point any time soon.
“I have to thank the fans who are here every day,” Allen added. “There are a lot of people cheering me on and saying I’m the greatest, and I hope I can keep on keeping everyone happy.”
Two of Gallardo’s winners today were for Tampa Bay Downs leading trainer Jamie Ness and leading owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. – 4-year-old filly With Prejudice in the fourth race and 6-year-old mare Lil Escape Artist in the sixth.
Gallardo also won the second race on 4-year-old gelding Ten Pointer for owner James O’Connor and trainer Kathleen O’Connell and the third on 5-year-old mare Palmetto Star for owner Tilford Sharp and trainer Timothy Hamm.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 20 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Jockeys and Jeans. Tickets can be purchased online for the inaugural Jockeys and Jeans event on Saturday, March 29 to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
The PDJF is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides financial assistance to about 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. The fundraiser, which will be held under the tent in the track’s Backyard Picnic Area, is open to the public. Tickets are $35.
Among the jockeys scheduled to attend are Hall of Fame members Pat Day, Jacinto Vasquez and Walter Blum; Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Mike Manganello, a former leading jockey at Tampa Bay Downs; recently retired jockey Ramon Dominguez; Patti Cooksey, who rode more than 2,100 winners; Diane Crump, the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby; and Barbara Jo Rubin, the first woman to win a race at a recognized track.
Also expected are four-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey William Henry; past Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Benny Feliciano; William Klinke, a former Tampa Bay Downs jockey known as “The Colonel;” Michael Straight, who rode his first winner in 2009 at Tampa Bay Downs only a few months before becoming paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Arlington; former Tampa Bay Downs jockey Darrell Brown; and Julia Brimo, who has made a remarkable recovery from a career-ending cervical spinal cord injury suffered in a spill at Keeneland.
Dominguez, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a spill at Aqueduct in January of 2013 that forced his retirement, will be the event’s featured speaker. The 37-year-old Dominguez is an unpaid advocate for the work done by the PDJF on behalf of disabled riders.
Dominguez retired with 4,985 victories, winning Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Jockey in 2010, 2011 and 2012. His situation has raised awareness within the Thoroughbred industry of the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries on jockeys years after they have stopped riding.
Fans attending Jockeys and Jeans will have an opportunity to have their picture taken with the jockeys, enjoy a barbecue luncheon and beverages and bid on unique racing memorabilia. Attendees will receive an autographed commemorative poster. The gates will open at 11 a.m. There will be a general autograph session at 2:30 p.m. on the first floor of the grandstand.
Tampa Bay Downs jockeys will donate a mount fee on the day of the event. For details, visit www.pdjf.org
online or call retired jockey and author Dr. Eddie Donnally at (818) 653-3711.