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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 31 October 2020
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A newspaper ad, a move from Cork to Australia and winning Group 1 races during Covid-19 crisis

Jockey Johnny Allen on his journey from Cork to winning high-profile races in Australia.

John Allen with Russian Camelot after victory in Adelaide
John Allen with Russian Camelot after victory in Adelaide

IN MID APRIL Johnny Allen jumped on a plane and headed to Adelaide

There weren’t many sportspeople wrestling with dilemmas over their schedules at the time. Covid-19 had prompted Australian sport to close the shutters. He saw the marquee field games grind to a halt, the NRL and the AFL amongst those having closed up shop. He heard similar stories from back home about Irish activity where racing had made a go of it for a spell in March before succumbing to the inevitable.

It was not a straightforward decision for the Cork native to take the flight. Generally it was a day trip for the jockey from his base in Victoria but there were different circumstances to contend with.

In Australia they had kept the show on the road. The autumn carnival in Adelaide offered the attraction of lucrative Group 1 races and strong chances of success. The catch lay in what the preparation and the recovery would entail. Once he flew over the state border and landed in South Australia, two weeks in isolation were mandatory. The same would apply when he returned home after.

The 35-year-old weighed everything up, made his calculations and went for it.

“I was lucky in that there were five Victorian-based jockeys altogether that went over. Myself and two others (Dean Holland and Ethan Brown) isolated together so we were in the one house (outside Adelaide).

“Like everyone else we just set up a bit of a gym, we brought a bit of equipment with us, tried to keep fit. Plenty Netflix, similar to what a lot of people have been going through back home. We’d a mechanical horse set up out the back as well. We were able to keep ourselves in shape, watch the weight. It didn’t work out too bad.

“Lucky enough racing has been able to keep going but with restrictions but they’ve done a good job to keep it going. The group of jockeys we were in, we couldn’t ride track work so it was just a case of going racing. No crowds as well, they spread us out a lot more in the jockey rooms. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same, get up, go racing and come home. We haven’t felt the effects of it like back home.”

The sacrifice of four weeks out of action in total was rewarded in spectacular style at the Morphettville track. On Saturday 9 May he took the South Australian Derby on board Russian Camelot, the first northern hemisphere three-year-old to achieve that, and part of three winners that day.

A week later he won the Goodwood for Godolphin when steering Trekking home for trainer James Cummings, the grandson of Bart Cummings, a legendary figure in the sport in Australia who won the race that stops the nation in Melbourne on 12 occasions.

racing-furphy-goodwood-stakes Johnny Allen after Trekking's victory Source: AAP/PA Images

It was the 10th Group 1 winner of Allen’s career and eight of those have arrived in the last 18 months.

It’ll be a decade next April since he made the decision to leave Ireland and try his luck somewhere else. There was no detailed plan meticulously mapped out, he just took a punt on a different way of life.

“I had a couple of good years initially at home but things had quietened down a bit. I probably just wasn’t riding as much as I’d like to be. I’m not going to make excuses for myself, whether I wasn’t riding well enough or whatever. Just those couple years before I made the decision to move over, I wasn’t getting the opportunities or many rides at home.

topofdemornintou-ridden-by-johnny-allen-wins-the-punchestown-com-handicap Johnny Allen riding in Punchestown in 2008 Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It was as much taking a chance really, I never came out here with the intention of staying. It was a desire to travel and see a bit of the world as much as anything else. There was an ad in the Irish Field looking for jump jockeys to come to Australia. I went out first just for six months and to see how I got on. That went well and I came back the year after. Been here pretty much permanent since. Things have worked out.”

His background was as a jumps jockey. Racing had sparked his interest since he was young, growing up in Araglen in north Cork, tucked away in a corner of the county that borders Tipperary and Waterford.

“We always had ponies. My mother teached in the pony club, I was riding ponies since I was a kid. My father and my mother would go to the local point to points. We’d tag along. It just took off from there. North Cork is steeped in point-to-points so I grew up with a jump racing background and ended up going down that route.”

He started spending summer holidays and free time at the stable of trainer Sean O’Brien, nearby in Killally, Kilworth. He credits the education he received there as being pivotal and later he joined trainer Joe Crowley at Piltown in Kilkenny in November 2002. In a neat twist of fate, his first ride in the Melbourne Cup came last November for Crowley’s grandson Joseph O’Brien on board Downdraft.

Allen’s career was meandering along until he got that taste of alternative competition. He was back racing in Ireland for the winter of 2011 before the move to Australia became permanent in March 2012. He didn’t get to enjoy summer weather for a couple of years but that was a downside worth living with as he concentrated on the adaptation to flat racing.

“Riding over jumps here, it’s pretty limited opportunities, there’s only 70, 80 a year. Just to get more opportunities and earn more money, I got my weight down and started riding on the flat. It went from there.

“The biggest thing is my weight, I always have to be on top of it. When I was a jumps jockey I was always light enough that I never really had to watch it. I could eat what I want or go out drinking every weekend and my weight would be grand come Monday or Tuesday. Now you just have to be a bit conscious about what you’re eating and keeping in shape.

“It’s pretty similar racing but it took me a while to adapt to it. I wasn’t banging out a heap of winners my first couple of years, I was just riding lowly grade meetings. Gradually getting more winners, that led to more opportunities.”

racing-sa-derby Russian Camelot is first home in the South Australian Derby Source: AAP/PA Images

The status of racing in Australia took him aback. It is a country with an array of sporting passions, Victoria humming again this weekend with the chatter of Australian Rules. Allen had assumed initially that racing occupied a lower status in the pecking order.

“I was actually surprised at how big an industry it actually is. Lot of people employed in it. Australia is obviously a very big counttry but it stil only has a population of 25 million or something like that. They race in Victoria every day of the week and New South Wales but countrywide on a Saturday, there’d be the bones of 20 meetings. The good quality races, Sydney and Melbourne would be the main hubs. There’s plenty racing going on around the country, lesser money and not the glitz and glamour of Melbourne.”

He heads to other states on a handful of occasions over the course of a year to race, those big carnival meetings in Sydney and Brisbane and Adelaide. But his bread and butter work is around the Melbourne area with Flemington, Caufield and Moonee Valley the tracks the Cork man has become most acquainted with.

The progress has been incremental but his status has exploded with the bunch of higher-profile successes of late. Different trainers have been good to him, he’s forged strong relationships with owners. Now he’s cleared the 600 mark for winners in his career.

racing-derby-day Extra Brut wins the Victorian Derby in 2018 Source: AAP/PA Images

“I rode one Group 1 winner in ’16 and one in ’17 and since then luckily enough I’ve had a good run. My biggest winner was 2018 (the Victoria Derby with Extra Brut) the feature race that day. It was a $2million race, there was 100,000 people there that day. That was my highest profile winner. The (Melbourne) Cup is on the Tuesday, Derby day is the Saturday.

“I won a couple of Group 1s on a filly called Kenedna, she was probably one of my favourites. I won eight Group races on her and two Group 1s. She’d been a filly that’s been very good to me.”

racing-doomben-cup Trainer Ciaron Maher and jocky John Allen after victory in Brisbane in May 2019 Source: AAP/PA Images

What does the future hold? He’s entering a quiet sporting phase now as winter descends in Australia. The racing highlights of Melbourne in November will soon start to assume greater focus.

After that he’s keeping an open mind.

“I live in a place called Ballarat, it’s about an hour outside Melbourne. It’s a city of 100,000, not a little town or anything. It’s know for being the coldest and wettest city in Australia so the winters are pretty harsh here.

“But it’s all good. When you’re having success it definitely helps you settle a bit better. I’d always consider myself an Irish man, Ireland will always be home.

“I’d like to think I’ll end up back there at some stage. Australia is home for now and I’m settled enough for now.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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