On the Rails

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am

Ivan Allan was a trainer of horses, a polariser of people.

As a horse trainer, he had more admirers than detractors. Perhaps as a person he piled up the latter at a considerably faster rate. But he was a great talent either way and great media fodder.

Rivals often sniped, both during and since his training career, that Allan used the media. There is no doubt that was the case and, as often as he could, it was for any personal benefit he could get.

But, unlike many in the business who fancy themselves as users or manipulators of the press, Allan was good at it. If he rang with a tip-off, it was always newsworthy and it was always right.

When Fairy King Prawn was mysteriously barred from attempting to defend his Yasuda Kinen victory and the Japanese authorities produced a spurious foot-and-mouth-disease excuse, Allan's daily information from incredibly wide-ranging sources helped this paper wage an ultimately successful campaign to force Japanese authorities to see how disingenuous their actions appeared to the rest of the world. Fairy King Prawn ran. He didn't win that year, but Allan won the war of words, as he often did.

During the isosorbide, or 'Shampoogate', case, Allan was seen at his combative, even mischievous, best before his positive was thrown out - found to be the product of an anti-fungal shampoo distributed by the Jockey Club itself.

He reported to the press daily on what was happening inside the hearing - in complete disregard of the protocols, even the rules - knowing that only in this way could the truth of the situation be seen and Allan escape the black-and-white shackles of the rule book that said it was all his responsibility.

He was Watergate's 'Deep Throat' without the darkened car parks and anonymity.

Yet on an alternative day when Jockey Club chief steward Jamie Stier hit back at Allan, the trainer's joy in the fight itself was palpable.

'You're still in the business of selling newspapers, I see,' he boomed one morning after the Post had reported Stier's anti-Allan comments from the other side of the argument - he then proceeded with his next newsworthy offering: 'a two-fingered salute for this inquiry and it isn't the victory sign.'

Vets, stewards, officials of all kinds rarely escaped their dealings with Allan without toe-to-toe battles. He did not surrender and was a venomous enemy, yet an ally of apparently shifting moods, too - Allan chose to publicly announce his retirement in 2005 through this newspaper, not through official channels and not through his longtime friend and confidant, our journalistic rival, Ken Martinus.

Allan arrived in the not-so-old and not-so-bad days, but still a time when most trainers sent a group fax to the owners in their stables every race day, detailing their thoughts on the day's racing. It was seen as one of the perks of being an owner to get all this apparent inside information.

Allan loved to tell the story of an owner who liked a punt and came proffering a horse, telling the trainer he assumed he would get all the stable tips every raceday thereafter. Allan said he told the man a flat no - that only the owner of each horse would be told about its prospects. But, he said, that will be the same for you and your own horse - nobody else will get that tip.

In the 1980s and '90s, Allan was a prominent owner in Australia and one story did the rounds about how difficult he could be with trainers.

Upon being told one of his unraced horses had ability, Allan asked the trainer not only to prepare it to win its first start but be as secretive as possible, to preserve the odds for Allan to have a big bet. He assured the trainer he would be well looked after in cash for his troubles.

The trainer went about his job, spreading a few half truths, even downright lies, to ensure everything would be right on the day.

That day arrived with the horse ready for a maiden race outside Melbourne and Allan rang, eager to know the odds. He then empowered the trainer to get a large amount of money on the horse, but the flabbergasted trainer told him there was no chance of betting so much on a minor race.

Angered, Allan said to get on what he could and the trainer organised a substantial bet but well short of the original request. The horse won, Allan got his money and the trainer never saw a cent above his percentage and never got another horse to train.

That was Ivan - people never quite knew when they had him or what they had to do to keep him, even if that was ever possible, and doubtless that was all part of why his private life became so messy and public in latter years in the English courts.

Best training efforts? Well, winning the Hong Kong Mile with Olympic Express at his second run in seven months must be up there with the greats.

Ivan Allan. A great trainer. A brilliant eye for a horse. A difficult man.