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.
To this day, he wears both hats proudly, still working — at 76 — as a full-time major league scout for the Houston Astros here in the Baltimore-Washington area while keeping his eyes open in case another nice horse comes along.
Northern Wolf was considered a long shot, but the horse was no phantom either. He had won several stakes races and would go on to set speed records at both Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course at 6 furlongs. The record at Pimlico (1 minute, 9 seconds) still stands.
There were some other indignities for Allen, including a struggle to pick up his credentials and tickets for his wife and Northern Wolf’s owners, but it certainly wasn’t the first time he had run into that kind of thing. When he started his professional baseball career, the black players still had to live apart from their white teammates when they went south for spring training.
If that was a source of bitterness or frustration, Allen did not let it distract him. He understood he was breaking through a barrier that had kept African-American trainers marginalized for most of the previous century and — historical significance aside — he really felt he had a chance to win the Kentucky Derby.
“I had done my history homework years and years ago,” he said, “so I understood all those years ago when the Derby first started, there were a lot of African-American trainers and riders and some of the greatest trainers and riders were African-American.”
In fact, 13 of the 15 riders in the first “Run for the Roses” were African-American and two of the first three Derby winners were trained by former slaves — Ansel Williamson with Aristedes in 1875 and Ed Brown with Baden-Baden in 1877. But after Raleigh Colston saddled his namesake Colston in the 1911, not another black trainer would follow until Allen arrived in Louisville in ’89.
Northern Wolf would also run in the Preakness that year, but injured himself and finished a distant eighth in the second of three legendary Triple Crown duels between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. The horse would come back after a layoff to set those records in Maryland and also had a successful breeding career.
But that day at Churchill — for better and worse — remains Allen’s most indelible memory.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” he said. “There’s no other day like it. I compare it to the World Series. People are gathered around the barns and they’re asking about your rider, your horse. There’s a line of people about 10 deep on each side from the barn all the way until you walk onto the racetrack. And that’s like an honor that you are walking through and they honor all the trainers and horses that are going to the track that day.
“Then the moment you set foot on the racetrack, the crowd just goes wild when they see those Derby horses come out. I’ve never had an experience like that. I’ll always remember that experience of being in the Derby on Derby Day.”
Allen grew up around horses. His father owned working horses and all the sons helped feed and groom them. Hank also grew up around baseball. His oldest brother, Coy, played in the Negro leagues before Hank, Dick and Ron Allen all reached the majors during the 1960s and ’70s.
Hank didn’t get into the horse racing business until after his baseball career ended in 1973. If he’d had his druthers, he would have stayed in baseball in some other capacity, but promised job opportunities did not materialize and his dreams of someday becoming a manager were still a fantasy for African-Americans until Frank Robinson was hired as player/manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1975.
Allen, who earned his college degree during his playing career, told New York Newsday during that Derby week that he “begged and pleaded” for some kind of administrative job in baseball, but those jobs just weren’t there for black former players at the time. Some of the rejection letters made that pretty obvious.
Instead, he embarked on a training career that would sustain him and his family until a serious and mysterious migraine problem forced him to walk away from the sport in the early 1990s.
“They didn’t know what was wrong with me,” he said. “The doctors were telling me maybe I’m allergic to the horses. Maybe I’m allergic to the hay and straw out there. They asked me to step away from it and I was thinking, ‘I’ve been out there too long. It can’t be.’ That’s when I stepped away from the horses.
“Things started going downhill, so we sold some of the horses after that and people knew that I was sick and they started going elsewhere because I couldn’t work like I normally did.”
For a while, he served as a volunteer baseball coach at Riverdale Baptist near his home in Upper Marlboro, and that fork in his unusual career path would eventually lead him back to major league baseball.
During a tournament trip to California, he reconnected with former teammate Jim Gwinn, who was working as a scouting cross-checker for the Pittsburgh Pirates and who wondered why Allen wasn’t working in baseball.
“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.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here, ” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.