Allen's dream takes him home Horse racing: Ferris Allen left Virginia in 1976 to pursue his passion. Now the trainer is dominating at Colonial Downs -- just 20 miles from where he grew up.

October 08, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW KENT COUNTY, Va. -- Ferris Allen knew better.

A former teacher of government in his hometown not far from here, Allen had just begun training horses in West Virginia when a referendum appeared on the ballot in Virginia to legalize pari-mutuel gambling. Passage would clear the way for horse racing in Virginia, a prospect for which Allen and his father, Bert, yearned.

The year was 1978, and Allen drove three hours from Charles Town, W. Va., where he had been living for two years, back to his hometown of Varina to cast his vote.

But at a table in the polling place was his former next-door neighbor. She looked at him sternly and said:

"You can't vote because you don't live here anymore. Besides that, you should know better because you used to teach government."

The former teacher slithered out of there like a student caught cheating. That referendum failed, but a similar one passed 10 years later. That resulted in the opening of Colonial Downs in the remote countryside of southern Virginia between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Since the track opened Sept. 1, one trainer has dominated the standings since Day One -- just as the Orioles led their division every day of the season. That trainer is Ferris Allen.

In fact, Allen's domination of his competition surpasses the Orioles' domination of theirs.

In 25 days of racing at Colonial Downs, Allen's horses won 22 races. They finished second 18 times.

That's 40 first- or second-place finishes in 62 starts. And that's a rarity in this competitive business.

"We've had some hot streaks before, but nothing like this," Allen said. "But I've been so busy I haven't had much time to enjoy it."

He spends three days each week in Maryland, where about half his horses are stabled at Laurel Park, and the rest of the week at Colonial Downs -- about a three-hour drive from Laurel.

"I aimed my whole outfit here," Allen said of his success at this fledgling track. "And I've had terrific help."

Kathy Dibben is his assistant here, and Laura Dennis back at Laurel.

"They're doing a whale of a job," Allen said.

Because Varina is about 20 miles away, a steady stream of old friends and students pours into Colonial Downs to greet the state's top horse trainer.

"It's been a reunion deal for me here every day I've run," Allen said. "It's been a joy."

If Colonial Downs is running, Allen is probably running. And you can find him in the paddock, the winner's circle or the dining room sharing a table with the happiest man in Virginia, his father.

"He's 74 years old," said Allen, who's 46. "And he's having the time of his life."

Sitting next to his wife, Jane, Bert Allen can hardly talk because of the smile stretched across his face. That smile has been there since Labor Day, when horse racing returned to its American roots in Virginia.

"Oh, it's wonderful," Bert Allen said. "I've been waiting 50 years for this."

He made his living repairing cars, but his passion was horses. He used to run about six races on a three-eighths-mile track in his backyard every May on Preakness day -- a spirited country meet of mules, ponies, quarterhorses and thoroughbreds.

"I never owned a bicycle," the senior Allen said. "But I always rode a horse."

He dreamed of big-time horse racing coming to Virginia, and so did his son. But Ferris Allen dreamed from another state.

After playing baseball at William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg and teaching U.S. and Virginia government and coaching baseball at Varina High School, Allen chucked his comfortable middle-class existence.

"I decided I'd take a whack at training horses," he said. "I didn't think I could do any worse at making money than I was teaching school."

He and his father had worked with racehorses on the 12-acre Allen farm known as Warwick Stables. But in 1976, Allen set out for Charles Town with four horses -- two of his father's, one of his own and one of his neighbor's.

He succeeded right away, eventually gaining a couple of dozen horses from other owners. That first year he won 51 races, the second 67.

But purses were minuscule, so Allen moved to Maryland in 1979. He has been there ever since.

He consistently turns up in the trainer's top 10. In the mid-1980s he trained a homebred named Miracle Wood, who won the Maryland Juvenile Championship, ran second in the Jim Beam Stakes and finished fifth in the 1986 Preakness.

And at whose home was that classy colt bred? Bert Allen's, of course.

At his horse-crazy farm with its wild backyard track, the seeds were sowed for what transpired in this state. Horse racing finally came home, and so did Ferris Allen.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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