03/21/2011 1:50PM

Tampa Bay Downs may have blast from the past atop rider standings


OLDSMAR, Fla. – The last time Ronnie Allen Jr. was leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs, Ronald Reagan was president, “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles was the top tune of the year and gas was selling for around a dollar a gallon.

But should Allen continue to win at the rate he has maintained for the last month or so, the 46-year-old has an excellent chance to be leading rider here for the first time in 23 years.

Allen won riding titles here in 1984-85, 1986-87, and 1987-88, and is in the midst of his best season since returning to the saddle in 2008 after a five-year hiatus away from racing. He is currently third in the standings behind Daniel Centeno and Leandro Goncalves.

Centeno has 78 wins at the meet, 17 more than Goncalves and 19 more than Allen, But Centeno went down in a March 11 spill here, suffering a separated pelvis. With Centeno out for approximately three months and with Goncalves heading to Kentucky to ride at Turfway and Keeneland after this Friday’s card, the door is suddenly open for Allen to make a run at the title. The Tampa meet runs through May 8.

“There’s no question Danny [Centeno] was a shoo-in to win again this year before he got hurt, but you just never know what’s going to happen in this business,” Allen said. “I never gave winning the title much thought until recently when a few people said something to me about it, but, yeah, it would really mean a lot to me if I were lucky enough to get it done.

“I’m a Michigan guy, but Tampa’s been my second home for a long time and many of my family and friends are here, so yes, it would be something very special. But I’m not getting ahead of myself. I just go out every day, work hard, and let the cards fall where they may.”

Considering Allen didn’t ride a race from 2003 until 2008 when he was off the track because of personal issues, his comeback story is all the more remarkable. He has won 441 races in the past three seasons since returning to the saddle, he has his life in order, and many feel he’s riding better now than he ever did; slipping through on the inner rail, splitting rivals in the drive, and doing everything the consummate race-rider does. He will have a lot of support in the coming weeks as he continues his quest to beat the odds and win his fourth Tampa Bay title.

Rhone firster scores

Trainer Bernell Rhone very quietly does a first-rate job with his charges. He won with a good-looking first-time starter on March 18.

Ambassador of Love, a Value Plus colt, swept by the leader in the drive and drew off late to post a 4 1/2-length win in his debut while covering the six furlongs in a quick 1:10.81.

Rhone came back in the next race to saddle Independent George ($21.80) for his second win on the card. Rhone’s son-in-law Dean Butler was aboard both winners, which gave Rhone nine tallies for the meeting.

◗ Goncalves’ agent, James McNerney, reports his rider will be back here for Florida Cup Day on April 9.

◗ Trainer Robert Smith says he is planning on running his filly White Merlo in the seven-furlong Sophomore Fillies Stakes on Florida Cup Day. White Merlo is undefeated in two career starts here.