Tuesday 12 November 2019

'I came out here just chancing my arm' - Cork jockey set for Melbourne Cup ride after unlikely rise

Johnny Allen during a race at Punchestown in 2008. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Johnny Allen during a race at Punchestown in 2008. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

As Johnny Allen stands back and soaks in the famous Cup parade around the streets of Melbourne, the Cork jockey can scarcely believe how his life has changed in recent years.

When he answered an advert in the paper for jump jockeys to head Down Under in 2011, he couldn't have envisaged that he would close the decade by landing his first ride in "the race that stops a nation" in the early hours of Tuesday morning (4am Irish time).

It seems far fetched given his expertise over obstacles but Allen has carved out an outstanding reputation on the level in recent seasons with a number of Group One successes to his name, highlighted by last year's Victoria Derby triumph on Extra Brut.

The 35-year-old is delighted that he took a punt to make the trip to the other side of the world where he has reinvented himself and become one of the most sought-after jockeys on the circuit.

"I came out here just chancing my arm, I was gone quiet at home and always had a bit of a desire to travel," Allen told independent.ie on the eve of the biggest race in the Australian calendar.

"I had a few friends here and I initially came for four or five months for the jumps season. I didn't come over here with any set plans, I came over with an open mind and I got on well so I came back after riding the Irish jumps season in 2011-'12.

"Jump racing is quite a small scale over here so to gain more opportunities I got my weight down and started riding on the flat more. It's been a slow process to where I am now but I've got good backing from owners and trainers.

"I was only treating it as a working holiday and to see a bit of the world but when I made the decision to come out here full-time, it was tough and it was harder to leave home but I've made the most of it."

Horses were "the thing to do" in Allen's hometown of Araglen and after spending much of his equine education on Owning Hill working with Frances (who provided him with his first winner in 2003) and Joe Crowley, he marvels at how things have come "full circle".

Joe's grandson Joseph O'Brien – who also trains at the famous Piltown yard in Kilkenny – will provide him with his first Cup ride on Downdraft after the pair coasted to Group Three success on Saturday in the Hotham Stakes at Flemington.

"It's great to get my first Cup ride and it's extra special that it's an Irish horse. It's the only Australian race I would have heard of when I was back in Ireland growing up so hopefully we have a chance," Allen says.

"My weight would have restricted me the last couple of years but I've worked on that and I'm riding pretty light at the moment. I gave six or seven years at the start of my career riding up the Hill where Joseph trains now for his grandfather Joe so it's really come full circle."

Allen describes the remarkable training achievements of O'Brien – fresh from his first Breeders' Cup success on Saturday night with Iridessa – as "unheard of" and he believes that Downdraft, one of his four runners, has a live chance of securing the 26-year-old's second Melbourne Cup.

"He was hugely impressive on Saturday, obviously he has to back up three days later which isn't ideal but he was only touch and go to get into the field so that win confirmed his start," Allen says.

"If he reproduces what he did on Saturday I'm sure he can be competitive. He might handle the weather a bit better than some of the field too, we know he goes in the tough conditions so fingers crossed for a smooth run."

Atrocious weather during the parade with several deluges of rain were a reminder of home for Allen but he has no intention of returning to Ireland any time soon given the success he has enjoyed in the saddle Down Under.

"I get home once a year so I'm settled enough here now and I see myself here for the foreseeable future. It can be very tough at home with less opportunities and a smaller number of races," he says.

"If you're not attached to a big yard, it can be harder to gain those opportunities. Never say never but at the moment I'm settled enough here. There's no fear of me ever losing my Irish accent either despite still getting slagged for pronouncing my 'th's" wrong."

Allen's rise through the ranks is a perfect example of persisting against the odds and on Tuesday morning his name could be in bright lights if Downdraft does the business in the €5million Australian showpiece.

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