Horowhenua

The story of Levin jockey Tony Allan reads like a Hollywood script. He has scaled the highest of peaks by winning a Melbourne Cup, but along the way has fought off the demons of drug addiction. Now, he wants to write a final chapter with a happy ending. Paul Williams reports.

Tony Allan was in no hurry.

A handsome young man, he had just enjoyed a top night's sleep. He rang for a taxi, threw his saddlebag over his shoulder, and headed out for a date with destiny.

He arrived at Flemington racecourse an hour before the big race - the Melbourne Cup - where he was booked to ride giant New Zealand mare Empire Rose for Cambridge trainer Laurie Laxon. There were already nearly 100,000 people there. The sun was out.

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He was relaxed. Confident. He knew she was ready too. It was their day. Their time. He wasn't nervous, despite attracting the attention of the racing world. He had supreme faith in his horse, her trainer, and himself.

A couple of days earlier he was stopped by a policeman, who had asked to see his driver's licence. He only had his New Zealand licence on him, but produced the front page of the local paper showing him winning on Empire Rose in the McKinnon Stakes, three days out from the Melbourne Cup.

The cop let him off. The boy from Hinemoa St was riding the crest of a wave.

Laxon and Allan walked the course together and hatched a plan. She had a horror barrier draw at 22, so the plan was to jump out, let the big mare get into a rhythm, and send her forward - a surprise tactic considering she was normally a back runner.

It was a master stroke.

"At the 500m mark I felt like I was in a track gallop. We were left in front before the clock tower, probably sooner that I would have liked, but I looked to my right, and looked to my right again, and I plenty of horse there," he tells the Horowhenua Chronicle.

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"She must have been very happy and confident in herself because she sprinted. Mick Dittman and his horse were finishing strongly and in the end I wasn't sure whether he got us or not. But we got there."

To the roar of the crowd, the photo finish showed the big nose of Empire Rose in front. The fact her rear end was behind the second-placed horse showed how big she was.

"On the way back the crowd were so good. They were taking off their hats. That was the ultimate feeling. I was given a rose. We went for dinner later that night and you are just a compete star. You're doing interviews and making speeches. It took me so long just to leave the course," he said.

Levin jockey Tony Allan, famous for winning the 1988Melbourne Cup, is planning another comeback.
Levin jockey Tony Allan, famous for winning the 1988Melbourne Cup, is planning another comeback.

At that moment, the 20 year old's life changed forever. It was the pinnacle of the sport. In the previous two Melbourne Cups the pair had finished fifth and second respectively, "but no one remembers who finished second, do they," he said. They were unplaced the following year.

"I had a working relationship with the horse. We had a job to do, and we did it. I just knew we could do it. I was not at all nervous. It was like everything was meant to happen. I slept that well," he says.

"I think Laurie gave me the ride because he saw that I suited Rose. He worked on me as much as the horse, I think. He gave me so much confidence. He was such a good trainer ... he had Rose ready. He had her bang on, and me bang on. He had belief in you."

Allan was to partner the horse in six of her career wins, including the 1987 New Zealand Cup, while they also placed third in the 1989 Cox Plate.

"She was unique. I didn't have instant success with her because you had to work out her quirks. But she was a lovely mare and thrived on competition. She was so aggressive and you had to be careful she wouldn't kick another horse pulling up," he says.

"And she was so big. We had to get special gear made with a double elastic girth just to get around her, and I carried a longer stick. Sometimes they would have to just hold the starting gates closed behind her because they couldn't shut them."

Allan lost both his parents at a young age. His father Bruce died in a car accident when Allan was just 15. He lost his mother Audrey Allan five years later to illness. Shortly before his mother died, he told her he would win the Melbourne Cup later that year, and he was heartbroken she was not alive to see it.

Tony Allan after winning the Taupo Cup on The Immortal One in 2002. Photo / File
Tony Allan after winning the Taupo Cup on The Immortal One in 2002. Photo / File

"I had a tear in my eye. I believe she was there, spiritually. I thought of her. I do think I had a little bit of help.

"Losing Dad was a big shock at the time. He used to do a lot with us, take us boys to rugby. That was tragic."

One of four children, Allan also lost his brother Kevin and sister Sonya to suicide. He says his remaining brother Brian has been a rock, supporting him through the tough times, and he wants to make him proud.

"I'm lucky to have a brother like him," he said.

The meteoric rise to fame came with a price. Armed with fast cars, fame and money, Allan was to develop a methamphetamine addiction that took over his life and threatened to ruin his career. He bravely went public over his addiction.

"I just don't think I had complete control over it. I had just won the Melbourne Cup, and to come from Levin ... I was brought up not to touch drugs but I was young and just don't think I was quite ready to handle it. I believe I was easily led."

"At this age now I realise how important your parents are, and listening to your parents."

For Allan, there was no shame in sharing his story of his battle with meth. He had, so that others might find strength or solace, too.

In 2005 he made a brave choice to escape temptation and distance himself by taking a job in Japan, where he would remain for 12 years. While it was hard to leave his two children Renee and Ben behind, he felt the choice to leave was the right one, as he would be able to provide for them.

"I probably wouldn't be here today if I didn't change."

Tony Allan on Desert Sheikh racing in the Gold Coast Turf Club Trophy at Ellerslie in June 2002. Photo / File
Tony Allan on Desert Sheikh racing in the Gold Coast Turf Club Trophy at Ellerslie in June 2002. Photo / File

He never expected to be away from home for so long. Time just slipped by. But he was working hard to earn a living and support his children. He wanted to be a "proud father".

No one would have expected him to make a comeback to New Zealand race riding though. But it was always his intention. When the timing was right, he wanted to return with the unfinished business of riding 1000 winners. Only 32 New Zealand jockeys had achieved the feat.

Allan was stranded on 997 winners. So, after a short stint riding trackwork in Sydney he returned to New Zealand two years ago. He was fit, but it was a hard road to win the confidence of trainers and get on good horses, and the wins were few and far between.

In March last year he achieved the milestone aboard Aigne in a 2200m race midweek at Te Aroha. It was a far cry from a Melbourne Cup at Flemington, but in the scheme of things, considering what he had overcome, it was a special personal triumph.

Tony Allan pictured in 2002. Photo / File
Tony Allan pictured in 2002. Photo / File

But a bad fall at New Plymouth six months ago stopped all momentum. He had ridden seven winners for the season, and was track for a goal of 30 or 40 for the year.

The horse he was riding dipped and sent him crashing to the turf, breaking his right arm below the shoulder, requiring surgery.

Now, with the arm was now almost healed, the 52 year old hopes to be back riding again in a few months. He's keeping fit, running most days, and feels he still had five or six years left in the saddle.

"I still feel like I have unfinished business," he says.