02/16/2008 1:00AM

Allen rebounding after hitting bottom

Email

OLDSMAR, Fla. - The third race on Thursday's program was just another garden-variety claiming sprint, but when Tricks of Glory swept across the finish line three lengths clear of the field, it might well have been the Kentucky Derby for the jockey Ron Allen Jr.

It had been more than four years since Allen had ridden, and Thursday's race was a critical step in a comeback from more than a decade of personal problems and alcohol dependency. Later in the day, tired but happy, Allen talked about his first win back and what it meant.

"It was a great feeling," said Allen, a three-time leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs who has won 2,149 races and amassed mount earnings of more than $15 million. "There's just no feeling like riding in a race. I really missed it."

The Ron Allen Jr. story is common among jockeys and other pro athletes. In the 1980s Allen was a dominant force among the local riders, winning riding titles in 1984-85, 1986-87, and 1987-88. But as time went on he fell prey to the trappings of success. Partying with friends and co-workers began to become a regular thing, his morning work began to suffer, and with fewer quality mounts, his riding results also began to suffer.

Then there were run-ins with the law, some arrests and jail time, and, finally, after several aborted attempts to get back on track, Allen left the racetrack. He found it difficult to get licensed in some states and wound up working on the farm of Jerry Campbell, the main owner of his father, a trainer.

"Even though I wasn't riding, I was working with horses every day, thank God, because that's all I've done all my life is be around horses," Allen said. "I actually learned quite a bit working on the farm. I learned things most riders never pick up."

Finally, after attempting to handle his alcohol problems on his own for years, Allen made some serious decisions.

"I realized that if I didn't get my problems under control once and for all, my chances of ever riding again were over and that my life in general was in danger," he said. "I went to professionals, got into counseling, and put myself in their hands. It was the smartest thing I've ever done.

"It's a one-day-at-a-time situation, but I've been sober for more than six months now and finally life is starting to look good again. I'd like to thank my family and friends for being there for me. It means everything to me."

Allen, 42, said he has never felt better physically and can ride at 115 pounds. "I'm healthy and think I've got some good years ahead of me," he said. "I sure hope so."

Centeno opens daylight

A tight riders race was anticipated by many when the meeting started, but it looks like the only battle in the riding colony this season is going to be for second-leading rider.

Daniel Centeno had another riding triple on Friday and had 67 wins through the first 44 racing days, which kept him close to his pace last season when he set a record for races won in a single meet, with 126.

Jose Velez Jr. and Rosemary Homeister Jr. were tied for second through Friday with 34 wins each, and Pablo Morales (30 wins) and Carlos Montalvo (29) rounded out the top five.