OLDSMAR — If Ronnie Allen Jr. could have aligned the stars, even he would not have realized how surreal the possibilities were. Allen will finish the Tampa Bay Downs meet May 8 as the leading jockey, 23 years after his last championship.
"Easter is going to be real special," said Allen, who will spend the day with girlfriend and thoroughbred trainer Maria Bowersock. "Being leading rider, it's like a dream come true."
Allen hit the Downs with flair in the 1980s, winning three titles within four seasons. He posted a career-high 233 victories nationally in 1987. And in 1993, he rode Marco Bay to victories in the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.
But near the turn of the century, Allen's life turned. He had an alcohol problem, quit riding for five years and worked on horse farms in Florida, Michigan and North Carolina. Allen returned in 2008, winning 150 races with a career-high $3.4 million in earnings.
"I finally decided that I wanted to quit drinking and get back to riding," Allen said. "I got into rehab and cleaned myself up. I haven't drank in over five years. I haven't missed it at all."
This season, Allen united with jockey agent Frank Garoufalis. As wins mounted, the native of East Liverpool, Ohio, benefitted from the absences of several top riders. Four-time defending champion Daniel Centeno was injured in a spill; Leandro Goncalves relocated to Indiana; and Rosemary Homeister Jr. is expecting a child. All had more victories than Allen upon departing.
"I was sitting in the right spot for when those things did happen," he said. "I'm sad about Centeno. Injuries can happen to any of us, but they're part of racing."
Allen leads in wins (90), starts (558) and earnings ($1,200,155). His victory aboard My Sunshine Gal in the $75,000 Sophomore Fillies on Florida Cup Day was Allen's first stakes winner at the Downs since Marco Bay. He nearly won this year's Tampa Bay Derby with Crimson Knight.
Allen said Crimson Knight trainer Gerald Bennett has always been in his corner.
"Jerry and I go way back, ever since I was an (apprentice)," he said.
Allen's 24-year career includes 2,667 wins and more than $25 million in earnings. He will ride this summer at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.
"Ronnie has really straightened his life up," Garoufalis said. "He's 46. Most riders are usually retired by then."
EASTER SCHEDULE: The Downs will be closed. Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Tampa Greyhound Track will open at 11:30 a.m. for poker and simulcasting.