By Jon Lees
Australia: When former Irish jump jockey Johnny Allen answered a newspaper ad seeking riders in Australia, he saw it as an opportunity to travel and see more of the world.
Yet nine years on he has sated his wanderlust and turned around his career to such effect that he is now one of the most successful Flat jockeys in Australia.
“I suppose it was a stroke of good luck,” he says. “I chanced my arm to find some work and an opportunity arose.”
Allen’s profile rose again during this month’s Adelaide Carnival where the 35-year-old took his G1 haul to ten with victories in the South Australian Derby on Russian Camelot and the Goodwood on Godolphin’s Trekking.
Allen took a calculated risk in temporarily uprooting himself from his home state in Victoria to ride in South Australia.
In normal times he would have taken a short flight to ride on the big days, but under coronavirus protocols he was required to self-isolate for two weeks either side of the carnival, which unfolded over three consecutive Saturdays at Morphettville.
The trip delivered two more career highlights for Allen, 14 years after the Cork native’s jumping career peaked in Ireland when he was beaten by one winner in Ireland’s conditional jockeys championship.
“It was a good couple of weekends,” says Allen. “It was a bit of a gamble to go to Adelaide. With all the restrictions it was a big commitment to give up two weeks riding either side of it.
“But I was aware there weren’t many people planning to do it, and by doing so I suppose I was regarded as a big fish in a small pond.
“Russian Camelot and Trekking weren’t horses I had ridden before nor from trainers I would ride for regularly, but due to the fact I was going there those rides became available.”
The Danny O’Brien-trained Russian Camelot made history when becoming the first northern hemisphere-bred horse to win any Derby in Australia.
Allen says: “While I would count the two Group 1s I rode over the 2018 Spring Carnival [the Victoria Derby and Mackinnon] as my biggest successes, I still might not have ridden a horse as exciting as Russian Camelot before.
“I knew he looked to be a very good horse but he had to be because he was six months younger than the rest and running off level weights. If it was weight-for-age he really should have been receiving 3kg.
“The South Australian Derby is not traditionally known as a very strong G1 but it looks a bit deeper this year. To do what he did, being six months younger, and as easily as he did, he definitely has a big future. He could be very good.”
O’Brien had been considering sending the colt to Britain to contest the Epsom Derby before coronavirus intervened. “At Epsom he would have had his advantages,” Allen reflects.
“He would have had a summer on his back and I think he would have measured up. It would be hard to say he’d win but I have no doubt if he had gone down that route he definitely would have been competitive.”
As Damien Oliver is O’Brien’s go-to rider, the South Australian Derby may end up being Allen’s only association with Russian Camelot. But he will accept that reality given his situation back in Ireland in 2010 at the end of a jumps season that had yielded just four wins.
Allen had gained a taste of Australia in 2004 – a year in which as a claimer for Aidan O’Brien’s father-in-law Joe Crowley he had won the Pierse Hurdle on the Charles Byrnes-trained Dromlease Express – when he competed in an international jump jockeys’ challenge in an Irish team that included Robbie Power.
“I was only 18 or 19 at the time,” he recalls. “I don’t think I did any good but I did enjoy myself.
“A few years down the line in 2011 things had gone quiet at home. There was an advert in the Irish Field looking for jump jockeys to come to Australia because of a shortage.
“It was something that interested me because it was leading into the summer at home and I wasn’t riding a lot. It was a desire to travel and see a bit of the world as much as anything else. I said I would come out for six months and see how I got on.”
Australia’s jumps scene is tiny with fewer than 100 races in a season but after his second visit in 2012, Allen stayed on. He linked up with the prolific Darren Weir, who encouraged him to try the Flat.
“I was quite light for a National Hunt jockey,” explains Allen. “I hadn’t ridden that much on the Flat at home. It was a chance to get more opportunities so I got my weight down and started riding a bit on the Flat and it progressed from there. It didn’t happen overnight but it progressed year-on-year to where I am now.”
Weir, so successful that fans coined the slogan ‘Back Weir, drink beer’, supplied 225 of Allen’s 603 victories in Australia. However, the trainer left the sport in disgrace in February 2019 when he was disqualified for four years after electric shock devices were found in his home.
“When Darren got his disqualification I was getting the lion’s share of the rides,” says Allen. “It was a huge blow. I hadn’t created a lot of relationships with other stables so I really had to spread myself out after that and try and keep going.
“Thankfully a lot of the owners I knew through Darren stood by me,” he adds. “I kept the ride on a mare Kenedna who went to Ciaron Maher and David Eustace and I won two G1s on her in the space of a couple of months, in the Legacy Stakes and Doomben Cup at the Sydney and Brisbane Carnivals. That got the ball rolling again.”
Spring in Australia brought another first, a debut in the Melbourne Cup on the Joseph O’Brien-trained Downdraft, on whom he had won the G3 Hotham Stakes, a booking that coincidentally reintroduced Allen to his jumping roots.
“I started out working for Joseph’s grandfather Joe Crowley from the yard where he is now training,” says Allen. “I spent six or seven years there. I had met Joseph once or twice when he was very young but it was OTI, who have been good supporters, who I think nominated me to ride the horse.
“He didn’t run any good in the Melbourne Cup but it was a huge thrill to have a ride in the race. My mother was over on holiday and she got to go in the Melbourne Cup parade.”
Allen has now taken out Australian citizenship, “but I still identify myself as being Irish,” he clarifies.
The jockey, who enjoyed a season’s best 124 winners last season, has ridden 91 this term, with Maher and Eustace now his principal backers. He is now 34th among jockeys in the TRC Global Rankings.
Reflecting on his success, he says: “I was probably on the verge in Ireland of going down a different path because things didn’t work out for me.
“Being a jump jockey was my first love when I started out, but I am not going to make too many excuses. Things didn’t work out. Ireland is very competitive. There are a lot of good riders and only very few competing at the elite level. You are taking on the best in the business every day.
“I put in a lot of hard work to get my weight down for the Flat and this time it has worked out.”