It’s 4:15 in the morning. The backside of the racetrack is about to become busy, and it’s just minutes away from the day’s first set.
That’s an early start for most people, but for those at the racetrack, it’s routine, and for the preponderance of those in the industry, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
And for Ronnie Allen, Jr. and Maria Bowersock, the jockey and trainer, who are not only a well-respected rider and conditioner combination on the frontside of the track; they’ve been together as a couple for 12 years off the track, it’s been a way of life. The two seemed destined for a life in Thoroughbred racing.
Both of their fathers conditioned horses at the racetrack, so they were exposed to the sport at an early age. Allen seemed to have a discerning sense his future would be in the saddle.
“My whole family has been in the business for decades,” said Allen, Jr.” I grew up in Michigan and went to school there. We always shipped down here (Oldsmar) with my dad as kids (he and his brother Mike, who’s also a jockey), when he was a trainer. So, we had to switch schools a lot. But my mom told my dad when I was in high school, I wasn’t going to be switching schools. So, I stayed up there, and graduated from Hazel Park.”
Traversing the country
Allen enjoyed a great deal of success in the Midwest at Canterbury Downs and Detroit Race Course, while wintering at Tampa Bay Downs. He has shifted his tack to Presque Isle Downs during the spring, summer and fall months for the past decade.
“That’s what we (Allen, Jr. and his younger brother Mike) always wanted to do (become jockeys),” said Allen, Jr. “We really looked up to the jockeys, watching them ride my dad’s horses. It was a thrill for us kids, getting in the winner’s circle. We always wanted to do that and fortunately enough we both stayed light enough that we could pursue that. We were both wrestlers in high school, so we learned how to keep our weight down. We managed and it worked out good.”
It runs in the family
And for Bowersock, a third-generation horsemen, her predilection for equestrian sport, both barrel and Thoroughbred racing, had her directing her energies toward a future whose emphasis would be on conditioning horses. The Thoroughbred trainer’s twin sister Pamela barrel races competitively.
“My family has always been involved in horses,” said Bowersock.” My mom (Jeanie) barrel raced and still does. My grandfather trained racehorses. My uncle was a jockey when it was Waterford Park in West Virginia. My dad trained racehorses. As I was growing up, we were pretty much into the barrel racing and the futurities with the Quarter Horses.”
There didn’t seem to be any uncertainty as to what vocational path Bowersock was going to follow. She was fully immersed into a lifestyle that meant being around the barn. The racetrack seems to suit Bowersock well, and she was able to make the transition from one discipline to another, understanding the sacrifices one has to make to remain competitive in a business known for its pitfalls and adversity.
“I just loved horses,” said Bowersock. “It was an everyday thing. We had a huge training center in Ohio when I was growing up, me and my twin sister, that’s all that we’ve ever done. My dad has always been really supportive. He always said, have a backup plan if it doesn’t work out. I said, my backup plan is always going to be horses (laughing). If I had to go back to barrel racing, training barrel horses, something to do with horses, I’d always would stick with that for sure. I really enjoy the racehorses, it’s a different type of training, a different atmosphere, not as much traveling, but we do travel a lot, not as much as we did in our younger days.”
Destiny at the Downs
Both Allen and Bowersock would realize their dreams, taking them on an adventurous sojourn, and eventually across each other’s path.
The racetrack in Oldsmar, Fla., Tampa Bay Downs, would play a role in both their lives, with Allen practically growing up there in the winter. And when Bowersock made the transition to the racetrack fulltime, she was working for a couple who had cemented their place where she spends her winters today.
“As I got older and had my son (Gavin), I decided I would get a steadier income,” said Bowersock. “So, I took a job with Nadine and Duane Knight. Duane of course trained at Tampa for years and had a lot of horses.”
Eventually, Bowersock would take out her trainers license, taking the leap of faith into the industry, and it’s obvious as soon as she starts talking about Thoroughbred racing, her passion and enthusiasm are palpable, resonating deeply with the listener as she expresses her love for the horses that make up her stable.
Change in Plans
The summer of 2020, Bowersock and Allen made the decision to shift their tack from their normal base of Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., and instead made their presence felt without leaving the state of Florida, training at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach, Fla. and racing in Hallandale Beach at Gulfstream Park.
“I’ve always went north for the summer, the horses seem to do a little bit better in the colder weather then they do in the heat,” said Bowersock. “You just have to adjust your training. I wasn’t really fond of shipping down from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream when we had to run, but I hired an assistant (trainer) and she would go with the horses. I was able to stay at Palm Meadows a good bit to finish up training and look out for the horses. It worked out well. I thought we had a pretty good year there, for the first time staying south.“
And with the Presque Isle Downs meet not opening until early July, there is a distinct possibility of returning to Gulfstream for the Spring/Summer meet, said Bowersock. Although it’s more than likely that the couple will race at Thistledown and Presque Isle Downs this summer.
“I’d probably change a couple of different things, with the learning experience,” said Bowersock.” I did miss going home because my farm is close to Presque Isle (East Liverpool, Ohio). My parents live up there. It was just too big of a risk to ship that big of a stable up there, not knowing what was going to happen because of COVID. Everyone at Gulfstream was great. They were really nice. I can’t say I won’t do it again. We did have a pretty good meet.”
Home field advantage
However, Tampa Bay Downs is home for Allen and Bowersock. Allen has won four riding titles, trailing only Mark Manganello and Daniel Centeno who have won six and Antonio Gallardo who has claimed five leading jockey crowns.
Allen enjoyed a successful year in 1988, one where he became the first rider at Tampa Bay Downs to win more than 100 races at a meet, finishing with 102 victories. He won the meet the previous year too, with 76 wins.
“It was amazing (winning the title for the first time at Tampa Bay Downs). I never thought that would happen when I began riding. I never thought that I could be a top jock, but things happen, I got the right agents. As a matter of fact, my first title was in Detroit (DRC) and my first agent was a groom and I hired him as an agent. We came down to Tampa and I was the leading rider here a couple of years straight. It was like a dream come true. I love it (Oldsmar). This is the only place to spend the winter.”
That first title came when Allen was in his early 20s, as he enjoyed success on two different circuits, riding a significant number of live mounts, providing him with the opportunity to visit the winner’s circle on a routine basis.
“That was exciting,” said Allen. “That was a good year for me. I think I won over 200 races that year between Detroit and Tampa. It was quite an accomplishment. It’s not a real long meet, but everything went right that year. I was getting on some really good horses. I was winning three, four or five a day. I was doing good. I won the title easily. I think I was 30 wins in front.”
Ronnie’s brother Mike is also an accomplished jockey, having won more than 2,100 races, including the 1997 Grade Three Budweiser Mile Handicap at Yakima Meadows while up on L.J. Express. The siblings are fixtures at the Tampa Bay Downs jockey colony in the winter.
“Back a few years ago, when we were both doing really good, it was a rivalry,” said Ronnie Allen, Jr. “Now we just root each other on, not against each other. We compete hard, just like when we were kids.”
Winning the big one
It was a Florida-bred son of Copelan that Allen won the Tampa Bay Derby with, scoring the meaningful victory while riding Marco Bay in 1993 edition of the race. The colt was conditioned by Sarah Lundy and bred and owned by Sunset Bay Stable’s Jay Shaw. Marco Bay won the Sam F. Davis Stakes by two lengths after being sent off as the favorite. And the combination would not disappoint the bettors after once again receiving the confidence of the wagering public in the Tampa Bay Derby, winning a nail biter that continues to resonate with Allen to this day.
“I was the leading rider that year and picked up that horse,” said Allen “He (Marco Bay) came up from Miami. I guess the rider who rode him regularly couldn’t come. We picked him up for the Sam Davis and he won easy. Then I rode him in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he won pretty nice. He went up north from there, and I didn’t get to ride him back.
“It was great because I rode here so many years and never got the big one, and that year was my year.”
Away from the races
In their off time, the couple does things with Bowersock’s son, Gavin who’s 16. On the dark days, they often go to the beach and Allen tries to play golf at least once a week.
Durable and dependable
However, the couple has become synonymous with one horse at Tampa Bay Downs, a Kentucky-bred who recently won the 20th race of his career on February 19th, the gray 11-year-old gelding Divine Ambition, who is by Divine Park and out of the Skip Away broodmare Window Woman. Allen describes the venerable campaigner as the old war horse
“Me and him get along pretty good,” said Allen. “He always gives you a good effort, as long as I can work out a good trip for him, he always finishes strong. He’s a nice horse and probably one of the best ones I’ve ever rode.”
Divine Ambition is near and dear to Bowersock’s heart, and his story takes on greater gravitas, as it’s one of a propitious nature, a tale woven in the vagaries of life that even at the most adverse times one’s fortune can change.
“I was down and out, and I had some money put back, and I claimed him and another horse,” said Bowersock. “I claimed him for $5,000. And now he’s won about 15 races with me. He’s kept me going on my down days and my good days, he’s always been there. He’s been a good horse.
“He’s a once in a lifetime horse. I know he’s not a big horse, a top horse, but he still runs well. He always gets a check, and he’ll win one or two a year, or even three or four or five. He’s a hard knocker. He’s a war horse and he’s been really special to me. He’ll be with me until he dies. He’s been real good to me.”
Allen has ridden over 3,800 winners and continues to be among the leading riders at Tampa Bay Downs, finding himself in the top 10 leading riders perennially. He won 109 races in 2011 while securing his fourth riding title.
Class and confidence
Among the horses that he had great success with include the Florida-bred chestnut mare Hooh Why, who was bred by Gail Gee and owned by Mark Hoffman and Earl Trostrud. Allen rode Hooh Why to victory in the Distaff Turf Stakes. Allen also had the opportunity to ride some of her offspring this winter, including a colt for Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott.
“Hooh Why, she was a class filly, and she tried really hard no matter who was training her,” said Allen. “Mark Hoffman was always really behind the scenes. He sent her to Maria for a short while. She took good care of her. I had a lot of success with her. She’s a nice mare.”
A perfect fit
A chestnut gelding by the 2004 dual classic winner Smarty Jones, who was bred by Glen Hill Farm and conditioned by the trainer who is the all-time leader in Florida Cup wins, Tom Proctor, gave Allen several stakes victories while he was in the irons, Old Time Hockey.
“I won a bunch of races on him,” said Allen. “Proctor said, ‘That me and him were made for each other. (laughing).’ Tom really treated me well for a few years there and got me going again. I have to thank him a lot for everything.”
That was a close one
Crimson Knight, a chestnut gelding by Leroidesanimaux (BRZ), placed second by the narrowest of margins in the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby. Crimson Knight was from the same crop of runners sired by Lerodesanimaux (BRZ) as Animal Kingdom, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby that same year. Crimson Knight was campaigned by Winning Stables Inc. and Raymond Rech and was trained by Gerald Bennett.
“The one that just got beat in the Tampa Bay Derby,” said Allen. “That was pretty amazing. Bennett claimed that horse for $16,000. He really went up the ladder and almost won the big one. He was a nice horse too, and I won a bunch of races on him.”
The queen of Shakopee
However, there was a mare in the late 1980s that Allen would enjoy a great deal of a success on, a North Dakota-bred by the name of Hoist Her Flag, who was by Aferd out of the Beauquillo mare Sue La Con. Allen and Hoist Her Flag were a dominant combination at Canterbury Park, winning the Mighty Miss Handicap, Zip Pocket Stakes and Eden Prairie Stakes in 1987 and the Don Riley Handicap and Vale of Tears Stakes in 1988.
“She was a big gray filly,” said Allen. “I won a few stakes in Canterbury with her. She was the Horse of the Year a couple of years in a row.”
A preview of what was to come
Allen would also pilot a future Breeders’ Cup Classic winner to victory at Tampa for Ian Wilkes and Janis Whitham, capturing the 2012 Challenger Stakes by 1 ¼ lengths, with the race serving as a harbinger for his future which included a win in the Stephen Foster Handicap (Gr. 1). The bay horse was sent off as the fourth choice in the field of five in the Challenger Stakes.
“I wish I could’ve stuck with Fort Larned,” said Allen. “He went to the Breeders’ Cup. Ian Wilkes had his rider down in Miami. When he came up here I rode him, but when he was down there he had Brian (Hernandez) ride him.”
Staying on task
Muggsmatic was a Florida-bred bay gelding, owned by Stonehedge Farm and conditioned by Kathleen O’Connell. The son of Any Given Saturday overcame a bump at the start to win the 2017 edition of the 14 Hands Winery Sophomore Turf Stakes. Allen was the perfect fit for the horse who needed to keep focused to be at his best.
“That was the year I was riding a lot for her (Kathleen O’Connell,” said Allen. “Tony (Gallardo) kept taking off her horses, and I kept picking them up, and I’d be winning a lot for her. When I picked up that horse, I really got a long good with him.”
Hindsight and the winner’s circle
A Florida-bred colt by Fappiano also provided Allen with a memorable stakes victory. Pentelicus, owned and bred by Tartan Farm, won the 1990 Johnny Morris Handicap at Arlington Park.
“I dead heated in the stake,” said Allen. “I was mad after the race because I thought I should’ve won. I was kind of listening to my trainer’s instructions a little bit, but I think I could’ve won outright, won by myself.”
Added money scores
Allen rode his first stakes winner in 1984, Tex’s Mayday. Other stakes winners he’s ridden include Fast Flying Rumor; Henny Jenney; Awesome Flower, Dress the Part; Magic Hour; My Sunshine Gal, Spanish Concert; Gone for More; Sport Jet; This Cat’s on Fire; Fiery Lake; Andiamo; Who’s Happy; Repenting; Mort; Cherie Yvonne; Proud Ridge; Diamond Gate; Beloved Trick; Sequentially; Little Guido; Match Trick; Norma Jeans Dance; Lofty Sisu; Gustofair; Timeless Prince; Grau Madchen; Ateaentsic; Cheerful Secretary; Bold Midway; Janjac, Blair’s Cove; Metric Kettle; Wakan Tanka; Brief Fame; Wild About Chrome; Dakota Slew; Texas Trio; Tourismo; Courtly Native; Wanling; Zengara; Quiet Colors, Bright Timing; Never Company, Charging Through; Lil Preppy; Medieval Decoy; Regal Break; Queen Alexandra; Beau Love Flowers and General Nuisance. Allen has won 21 stakes races at Tampa Bay Downs.
Talent for training
Bowersock has won her fair share of races, she is closing in on 200 victories, and recently became a stakes winning conditioner. One horse she enjoyed success with was J’s Indian Charm, who was owned by Janet Maitlen and bred by Adrienne Provost. Bowersock and Allen won a number of races with the mare, but eventually lost her for $12,500 at Gulfstream Park to Rich Averill.
Small and fierce
A mare with an unusual barn name, quirky personality and although she’s diminutive she possesses a spirited demeanor and was among the horses in Bowersock’s barn that has left an indelible impression. Feisty and entertaining, she found a way into Bowersock’s and Allen’s hearts.
“Suzie’steppinout, she’s (was) a good filly too,” said Bowersock. “She tries hard. I remember getting her as a 2-year-old. Martin Gooddel owned her, and I have a number of horses for him. He sent her up to me at Presque Isle. ‘I’m like, ‘Marty!’ He said, ‘She might be small, but she’s gritty.’”
It seems that the Florida-bred daughter of Two Step Salsa possesses an attitude and determination, one that’s redolent of something far larger than her size, keeping things interesting on the backside.
“The first day I sent her to the track, she flipped over onto the washing machine on my wash rack up and had to be stitched up,” said Bowersock. “Her name is Pyscho Suzy (laughing). She has that streak. We just loved her. She was a fun filly to be around. She’s a little crazy, but that’s what gives her that grit.”
Ticket to the Windy City
There are those horses that can take you places, and Bowersock experienced that during the nascent stages of her career as a Thoroughbred trainer, with a bay mare by the 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, out of the Strodes Creek mare River Flower. Ghost Flower’s evolution enabled the filly to find her stride in stakes company.
“She was my first good claim,” said Bowersock. “We claimed her for $25,000 off of (Jason) DaCosta. That was a long time ago (laughing). That was when I trained for Burkholder Stables. They’re from out of Ohio too. She was fun and to bring her up the way that we did, then to get her stakes placed and to be that competitive at that level was very exciting…I was just getting out on my own.”
It was during her sophomore campaign and at Tampa Bay Downs that the mare seemed to be improving, winning an allowance. The success continued when the connections shifted their tack to Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa. Ghost Flower’s progression suggested greater challenges, and she would find herself running against better horses, making her first added money start for her new trainer.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to try it to see where we’re at with her,’” said Bowersock.
But as fate would have it, the stars weren’t necessarily aligning the way that the couple had hoped, with unforeseen circumstances playing a role.
“Ronnie had gotten hurt right before the meet was over here (Tampa Bay Downs), and I rushed him to ride her,” said Bowersock. “He rode her, but his ribs were still cracked. He shouldn’t have been riding. He was like, ‘I know you really want me to ride her.’ I said, ‘I do. I think she’s going to be okay in there.’ The morning before, he got on and galloped, and said, ‘I’m okay. If I can gallop one, I can race ride one.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And sure enough, he rode her, and she ran second.”
As fate would have it, a propitious phone call would find Bowersock and Allen traveling to the Midwest with Ghost Flower competing against some of the nation’s best filly sprinters in the Meafara Stakes. The experience continues to resonate powerfully with the connections.
“The stakes coordinator from Arlington called, and said, ‘Do you think you want to bring Ghost Flower over?’,” said Bowersock. “It was literally within 48 hours of her running second at Presque Isle. And I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ I got her numbers and she got a pretty good number, and I talked to the owner, and Gene was like, ‘you have to try her.’
“I remember her coming into the turn, she was dead last, and I was like, ‘This was a bad idea Maria (laughing).’ And she just came flying. She ran second. The winner won. The winner was the horse to beat. We were never going to beat the winner. She ran a great race, and of course we were all excited. Here we are, we claimed her for $25,000, and she’s stakes placed and worth a good bit of money. Those stories always make the owners happy.”
Tried and true
Classic Run Farm’s Miami Smuggler, a gelded son of Turbo Compressor, was a durable campaigner who went postward 23 times. He’s moved onto a more quiet life, but Bowersock has fond memories of the gelding.
“He came to me early in his 3-year-old year,” said Bowersock. “Patricia bred and raised him. He did very well. He won two races, and then he got injured and now he’s retired at the farm. He’s retired at the owner’s farm, just north of here. I haven’t actually got to go see him, but I still touch base with them very regularly.”
In the right place
Indy Breeze, a mare bred by the University of Florida Foundation, was a stakes starter for Bowersock, who came to her barn because of propitious circumstances.
“We claimed her from Ron Paolucci, Looch Stables,” said Bowersock. “She was really good to us. It was just by chance, there was the story from Ron that they misentered the filly, and I was at the right place at the right time, and then we claimed her. She did really well for us. She was a good filly. She was one of my favorite claims, I have to say.”
Patience and progress
Jerry Campbell’s Castle King placed third in the Juvenile Turf Stakes on Nov. 22, 2020 at Gulfstream Park West and was third in the Armed Forces Stakes on Sept. 26, 2020 at Gulfstream Park. The gelding continues to evolve and progress, and his maturation has impressed Bowersock.
The Florida-bred gelded son of Verrazano bred by Mary Ellen Coenen has yielded positive results for his connections.
“Castle King was bought in the (OBS 2020 2-Year-Olds in Training) sale in March, said Bowersock. “We bought him for $25,000. He’s been a good boy. He’s tried really hard for us every time now. He’s stakes placed and made almost $70,000 last year. We can improve a little bit with him. I think he can win a stake. He’s just kind of growing into himself.”
Indy Lyon is a Florida-bred gelding who Bowersock ran on the dirt a couple of times at Gulfstream, but was switched to the turf, and the son of Congrats responded accordingly to the new surface, winning three of his first four starts in 2021 at Tampa Bay Downs, with victories on Jan. 16, Feb. 26 and March 20. Indy Lyon was bred by Rustlewood Farm and is campaigned by Jerry Campbell.
“He’s just excelled on the turf,” said Bowersock. “He’s been a really good boy, running good Beyer numbers, I’ll think he’ll move forward.”
But the best was yet to come as Bowersock would score her first stakes win as a trainer with Indy Lyon on March 28, 2021, with Allen in the irons, as the combination captured the 18th running of the Equistaff Sophomore Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Florida Cup Day.
“We gelded him a little late, which I think was one of the main things that helped him mature,” said Bowersock. “And we put him on the turf. As they say, the lightbulb finally got brighter. He figured it out and he’s on the top of his game right now. I think he’s going to get better.”
However, there was some uncertainty that Indy Lyon may not have won the Equistaff Sophomore Stakes, as the race was decided by the slimmest of margins, and Bowersock didn’t think the Florida-bred son of Congrats had gotten up at the wire. It was her assistant trainer Miranda Downing who was watching from a different angle, who was convinced that Indy Lyon had secured the victory. Bowersock’s son Gavin was in attendance at the race, and there was excitement back at the Bowersock barn, where she has 32 horses in training.
“She was like, ‘We got it!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ When they had the camera on him galloping out, she was like, ‘We got it.’ It was really exciting. I wasn’t 100 percent sure that either we were the nose in front or the nose in second. It was an exciting race. I think I’ve watched the replay 100 times. We were a little overwhelmed because we bounced the horse back in eight days. I was worried, but it worked out.”
A fourth-generation horseman?
Gavin, like his mother also has a powerful predilection for horses, said Bowersock.
“It’s all he talks about (the Thoroughbred industry),” said Bowersock. “I asked him if he would at least go to a trade school first as a backup plan. He loves the sales. I’ll let him decide what he wants to do. He likes watching the sales. He’s very involved in it.”
Bulwark in the barn
However, Indy Lyon hasn’t been the only horse with the same connections of Allen, Bowersock and Campbell that’s enjoyed success during the Tampa Bay Downs winter meet, a dark bay son of Verrazano, Rock the Park has reeled off three consecutive victories. (Editor’s note) Rock the Park was claimed April 3, 2021 by trainer Victor Carrasco, Jr. for Azuquita Racing.
“We got him in the right spots and we’re running him where he can win,” said Bowersock. “He may not be the allowance horse that we all wanted, running in cheaper company, but he’s doing good and getting his confidence. It’s all about placing the horses in the right position.”
Making a difference
Some horses can make a powerful impact when they arrive in a trainer’s barn, transforming one’s career and luck. A filly by Greatness helped turn things around for Bowersock. Carolyn’s Joy was bred by Harold Queen and had been conditioned by Gerald Bennett.
“Carolyn’s Joy is still at my farm in Ohio, retired,” said Bowersock. “Actually, that’s a funny story. When I was down on horses, Gerry Bennett called me. He said ‘I have this filly; she just needs some time off. Do you want to take her and give her a few months off? You know, put her back into training. My owner doesn’t want to do it,’ which was Harold Queen at the time. And I said, ‘You know what? Yeah.’ I’ll own her myself, and she could be a little bit of a money maker for me, hopefully.”
Carolyn’s Joy would become an important part of Bowersock’s string, and with Allen in the irons, the mare was a consistent performer earning the respect of those who had the opportunity to be around her.
“I gave her the time, and she won a good bit of money for myself as a trainer/owner,” said Bowersock. “It was good money for us. We called her our payroll horse. I’m actually considering breeding her this year. I just don’t know, I’m not 100 percent sure if I’m going to or not. It’s definitely on the books to breed her, just because she was a hard knocking filly and she tried hard. She was a cheaper filly, but I just don’t want to give her away to anybody.”
One of the horses in Bowersock’s barn that Allen has been up on in all three of his starts, is Imtakinittothebank, the full-brother of multiple graded stakes winner Lady’s Island. The chestnut gelding is by Greatness out of the Broad Brush mare Broadway Martha. The chestnut gelding was bred by Arboritanza Racing and is campaigned by Jerry Campbell.
Photos: Courtesy of Ben Baugh