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Saturday, April 21, 2012


ALLEN SAVORS THE CHASE; BEAR ALWAYS SETS TRACK RECORD


With nine days left in the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Ronnie Allen, Jr. knows his chance of repeating as the track’s leading jockey is slim.

Allen, who won Friday’s first race aboard the 3-year-old gelding Wokeuponhomeplate for owner Winning Stables Inc., and La Marca Stable and trainer Gerald Bennett, has 67 victories, 21 fewer than Leandro Goncalves. Tampa Bay Downs newcomer Angel Serpa is third with 63 victories.


While Goncalves has moved his tack north to ride at Keeneland and Indiana Downs, Allen is named on eight horses here Saturday and six Sunday. All together now, cue Yogi Berra: ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’

“If I get lucky and get on a roll, I might catch Leandro,” said Allen, who turns 48 Tuesday.

“It doesn’t look good. I’d have to win a whole bunch of them,” said Allen, who himself missed a week of the meeting with a bruised hip and injured shoulder incurred in a spill. “But I’ve had a good meet. I’ve come out of it healthy so far, knock on wood, and I’m happy. Either way, I’ll leave here the day after the meet ends (May 6) for Presque Isle Downs (in Erie, Pa.) and get back to work.”

There probably is no place Allen feels more comfortable than a racetrack, whether it is on the backside exercising horses in the morning or competing in the afternoon. His desire to keep busy is inspired by sitting out five seasons, from 2003-07, because of a drinking problem that had spiraled out of control.

“He has definitely learned from his mistakes,” said Allen’s girlfriend, trainer Maria Bowersock. “You see a lot of athletes who have a hard time handling fame and money, and Ronnie didn’t have the right guidance when he was younger. But he knows he can’t blame anyone but himself. He’s on the right path now, he’s been sober six years and he is very happy doing what he’s doing.”

Allen usually is at the track by 6:30 a.m. and often exercises a dozen or more horses in the morning before reporting to the jockeys’ room to ride the card. That fitness is a big factor in his success, according to Bennett.

“I don’t think age is a factor with him,” Bennett said. “He has no weight problems because he rides so many in the morning, so he doesn’t have to go in the box. He’s got his mind on work and taking care of business.

“Ronnie has always been excellent at getting a horse out of the gate, but he doesn’t ride as aggressively early as he used to. He still gets them out of the gate fast, but he lets the horse settle,” Bennett said.

“He stays fit by getting up early and going to work,” Bowersock said. “He enjoys his job and likes being around horses. I asked him the other day, ‘Are you ever going to retire?’ and he said no, as long as he stays healthy he is going to keep riding.”

Allen has been around horses his entire life. His father, trainer Ronald Allen, Sr., has saddled 1,271 winners. His uncle Larry Allen is also a trainer, and his brother Mike Allen is approaching 1,800 career victories as a jockey. Both riders are represented by agent Paula Bacon.

Last season, Allen finished atop the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings with 109 victories. The title came 23 years after his previous track crown, when he became the first jockey in track history to top 100 wins. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Allen – who began his career in 1983 at now-defunct Detroit Race Course – was leading rider here three of four seasons.

His best year in terms of victories was 1987, when he used his second Tampa Bay Downs title as a springboard to winning a career-best 233 races. Allen rode Sport Jet to an unplaced finish in the 1985 Preakness and won the 1993 Tampa Bay Derby aboard Marco Bay.

Since returning to action four years ago, Allen has averaged 151 victories a season. He won the $60,000 Challenger Stakes this season on Fort Larned for trainer Ian Wilkes. Allen has 2,808 career victories and seems a sure bet to reach 3,000 if he stays healthy.

To Allen, it is no cliché to say ‘everything happens for a reason.’ “To be doing well riding, and being able to do what I do best,” he said two years ago, “I feel I’m on top of the world.”

“He is so grateful for his second chance,” Bowersock said Friday, “and so thankful to trainers like Gerald Bennett and his dad and all the racetrack people who supported him. He really enjoys life.”

Although his craving for riding winners hasn’t dimmed, Allen looks at the big picture. He enjoys riding at both Tampa Bay Downs, which he considers home, and Presque Isle Downs, with its horse-friendly synthetic Tapeta surface and proximity to such tracks as Thistledown and Mountaineer. He looks forward to playing golf and fishing on his off days.

Allen has also embraced the role of elder statesman in the jockeys’ room, which is perhaps most surprising to those who remember his eternally youthful appearance in winner’s circles a quarter-century ago.

“We’re pretty good here about teaching the young jocks when they do something wrong,” he said. “We let them know about it. We have one young rider who was really loose when he came here – he was always whipping and driving with his head buried and didn’t care much about anybody. He has really improved a lot during the course of the meet.”

When it comes to talking about the keys to longevity, few jockeys are as qualified as Allen.

BEAR ALWAYS SETS TRACK RECORD

Trainer Jorge Navarro’s instructions to jockey Huber Villa-Gomez before Friday’s ninth race at Tampa Bay Downs were short and simple: Go.

“Go to the lead. That’s all I said,” Navarro said after Villa-Gomez rode 6-year-old gelding Bear Always to victory in track-record time of 1:39.07 for the mile-and-40-yard distance.

Bear Always led every step of the way, winning by a length-and-a-half from Royal Hill. The winner’s fractions were 23.42 seconds for the quarter-mile, 46.39 for the half and 1:10.97 for the six furlongs. Bear Always paid $6.80 to win.

Owned by the Blue Top Holdings Stable of Juan Matos, Bear Always was claimed by Navarro for $12,500 out of his previous start on Feb. 26 from Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and trainer Jamie Ness.

It was the third consecutive victory and 10th in 36 lifetime starts for Bear Always, a son of Vindication out of the Awesome Again mare Always Awesome. Bear Always has been claimed four times since August, but likely has found a fairly permanent residence after Friday’s performance. It was an allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event in which Bear Always was not eligible to be claimed.

The previous track record of 1:39.36 was set by the filly Vaulcluse in the 2008 Suncoast Stakes.

“I thought the No. 2 (Big Top) would go with us. That was my biggest worry,” Navarro said. “But this is a very nice horse. I knew I had a nice horse the first time I worked him (March 14) – my exercise rider weighs 160 pounds, and he was (pulling hard to restrain him),” Navarro said. “The improvement he made day by day. … these horses tell you how they are doing.”

Bear Always breezed a mile in 1:41 2/5 on April 11 and five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 on March 31.


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