In some ways jockey Ronnie Allen Jr. overcomes the odds every day he rides.
Professional sports are dominated by the young and horse racing is no different. But at age 52 Allen competes on a daily basis with riders often half his age; young, eager jockeys hungry to win races and make a name for themselves.
While many counterparts in his age range have already hung up their tack or are riding fewer mounts, Allen is competing as well as ever. Through April 15, Allen was one of three Tampa Bay Downs riders with purse earnings of $1 million or more at the meet and he ranked third in wins with 67, behind only Daniel Centeno and Edwin Gonzalez.
He is approaching a career milestone as he is just three wins short of 3,500 career victories.
And competing with counterparts who are young enough to be his sons or daughters is just one challenge Allen has managed to face and overcome in his life. Personal issues plagued the rider for several years, forcing him off the track from 2003-2007. Looking back on that period, Allen said the time off may have been a blessing in disguise.
“It was a very tough time for me, there’s no question about that,” Allen said. "But from a mental standpoint, (the time away) meant that when I was able to come back on the track and return to riding. I was more excited at the prospect of competing and winning than I’d ever been before I left.
“At a time when a lot of guys I’d ridden with were getting sour and frustrated because they weren’t getting the mounts they used to, I was just happy to be riding again. It was a second chance for me, a chance to make up for the time I’d lost and I was like a fresh horse, I was sitting on go.”
And go he did. His first season back (2008), Allen won 150 races and his mounts earned more than $3.3 million in purses. In the nine full seasons since he returned to the saddle, Allen has won at least 100 races every year except one and his mounts have earned at least $2 million each of those seasons.
So just how does a man in his 50s not only compete but often succeed against so many young, eager challengers? Allen credited fitness and the fact that he naturally carries a low weight.
“One thing is fitness,” Allen said. “I’m stronger now and can finish stronger on a horse now than I could 20 years ago. And I don’t have to worry about my weight, I don’t have to pull weight or go in the (hot) box. That regiment of pulling weight is something that takes its toll on riders as time goes by. When I used to drink, I did have to worry about weight from time to time but no more.”
Allen said two factors are crucial to his success.
“Number one, I still go out in the morning and get on horses,” Allen said. “If at all possible, I want to get on the horses I’m going to ride before we hook up in the afternoon. There are so many things you can learn about a horse in the morning that can help you when you go to the post—like horses that may have some breathing problem or are nervous.
“If you know these things in advance, you can use that knowledge to keep them calm and away from other horses going to the post or other things to keep them chilled out.”
Also adding that his knowledge of racing surfaces, especially the one at Tampa, gives him an advantage.
“I can look at the track and tell a lot just by the color.” Allen said. “This track can change from day to day and even from race to race. Knowing what part of the track is the best can give you just enough edge to win a race you might not otherwise win. A lot of young riders will go out and find out what part of the track’s dead after one of their horses gets beat because they were in the wrong spot.
“You need to stay ahead of the curve, gain some knowledge, and use that knowledge to your advantage. The difference between winning and losing out there is so razor thin that little things can make the difference. There’s no substitute for experience.”
So how long can we expect Ronnie Allen to keep riding?
“As long as I’m able to compete successfully and the owners and trainers want me on their horses, I’m going to keep going,” Allen said. “I’ve got a good foundation off the track with Maria (Bowersock, Allen’s partner for the past eight years). I’m pretty healthy, knock on wood, and I’ve got a great agent in Paula Bacon so I feel I can go for some time.
“If there comes a time when I can’t secure the horses to ride that have a chance, then we’ll think of doing something else, but for now I’m happy doing what I’ve always loved doing: riding and winning.”