Peter Schmuck: Barrier-breaking Hank Allen trains sights on a pair of sports

When Hank Allen arrived at Churchill Downs to get his horse ready for the 1989 Kentucky Derby, he had to know it wouldn’t be business as usual.

He would become the first African-American trainer in 78 years to run a horse in thoroughbred racing’s most storied event when Northern Wolf finished sixth behind Hall of Famer Sunday Silence, but some of the questions that rang out when he was surrounded by reporters on that first day outside the stakes barn weren’t quite what he expected.

“They thought it was a hoax … a stunt,” Allen said this week. “When I pulled up and got out of my car the first time, I was suddenly surrounded by a big group of writers and one of the first questions was, ‘Hank, who put you up to this?’ “

Nobody put him up to anything, of course, and it wasn’t as if he were a stranger to the world of sports. He had played parts of seven seasons in the major leagues and had put together a nice post-baseball career training horses in Maryland. If he wasn’t a big star, his brother Dick Allen surely was, and the two of them had gotten into the horse racing business together.

“He said, ‘Look, I’ll get you a job,’ ” Allen remembered, “but I didn’t pay any mind to it.”

Gwinn wasn’t just blowing smoke. He recommended Allen to the Milwaukee Brewers organization and a baseball career that was interrupted by a 16-year journey to the Kentucky Derby was rejoined.

Fans at Camden Yards and Nationals Park can see Allen evaluating players in the seats behind home plate during just about every home game, a job he says is not that much different from determining whether a racehorse has what it takes to be a champion.

“It’s very similar,” Allen said. “You have to find athletes and you have to find a good mind. If they don’t have that and don’t want to do it, well, horses are the same way. There are some that they don’t want to be athletes. They don’t want to be racehorses. That’s the thing. You have to get inside of them and understand them.”

Allen says he hopes to keep scouting for many more years and he also is looking forward to spending more time working with horses. Doctors eventually determined that his migraine problem was diet-related and he now controls it with medication, so he’s got the itch again.

“I guess it’s true,” Allen said. “They say that once you step in manure, you’ll keep coming back. It gets into your bloodstream.”

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here, ” at