Playing a different game

24 June 2022 Written by Michael Sharkie

Although some of his Group 1-winning skills stood him in good stead on the polo field, for jockey Johnny Allen, it was a whole new experience.

Group 1 jockey John Allen already has a couple of Ballarat Cups in the bag courtesy of his old mate Kiwia who went back-to-back in the rich country cup in 2018/19, but his eyes were opened to a very different version of the Ballarat Cup on a sprawling country estate in February this year.

The Ballarat Cup, held annually at Yaloak Estate, near Fiskville north-west of Melbourne, is the premier event for the Yaloak Polo Club, drawing the best players from around Victoria and interstate.

It was at this year’s tournament that Allen found himself in unfamiliar circumstances as he took part in the annual celebrity polo exhibition, and it was an experience he won’t soon forget.

“I was in the car going to the races with Dave Eustace and the organisers called him to see if he would like to take part,” said Allen.

“Dave being Dave politely agreed but then he looked at me and asked the bloke if he wanted a Group 1 winning jockey as well, so yeah he absolutely roped me in.”

The Yaloak Estate is set on an expansive 5071-hectare property, complete with an enormous mansion house, polo field and its own lake. The polo club was founded in 1980 and for the best part of 40 years has been a popular summer hang out for celebrities from around the country, who come to take in a day watching some of the best polo players in Australia.

Allen is the undisputed Derby king of Australian racing with 11 Derby wins in the bag. His latest came in April when Penfolds Victoria Derby hero Hitotsu took a historic Derby double when he prevailed in the Australian Derby at Randwick.

Adept in the saddle after a lifetime of riding racehorses, Allen wasn’t exactly confident when he took his seat in the saddle for the celebrity polo match alongside trainers Symon Wilde, David Eustace and Annabel Neasham, all accomplished riders in their own right.

“I’d never done it before so I was a bit like a fish out of water, it’s a very different skill riding polo horses.” - John Allen

“There was the four of us there representing racing and a couple of very talented equestrian riders as well. It was a bit of an exhibition before the main event and a good bit of fun, I didn’t go too badly but I probably lacked the practice and struggled to get a good hit of the ball away.”

The event is supported by Racing Victoria with numerous Off The Track thoroughbreds now finding their way into the polo system around the country thanks to the incredible versatility and adaptability of the thoroughbred.

Prized for their speed and agility, thoroughbreds are becoming more and more common amongst traditional polo bred horses, which occasionally draw genetic influence from thoroughbred stallions down their pedigrees.

What surprised Allen the most, apart from how hard it was to hit a white ball with a stick while riding a horse, was how well trained these horses were, and further investigation after the match opened his eyes to a world of technical training.

“Those horses, gee they take a bit of training. They are so agile and they move with you before you’ve committed to a movement. The ones that we were riding were absolutely amazing and speaking to some of the polo guys afterwards, there is years of work that goes into getting them to that standard,” he said.

“You can almost feel the horse reading the play. Mine was reacting to the movement of the game quicker than I was! He was taking me to the ball.

“Symon (Wilde) was the standout for the racing players, but he’d played the year before so he had that experience under his belt. Annabel was also very good and we all know that she is a very talented rider.”

Sticking around to take in the A-graders in the Ballarat Cup, Allen mused that although polo might not be the retirement pursuit for him in years to come, perhaps there might be an ex-racehorse in his back paddock when he hangs up his saddle after another dozen Derby victories.

“It’s something I wouldn’t mind, maybe to get into equestrian one day. It’s a very different skill set and it would be a challenge that I reckon I’d enjoy. I might leave the polo to the experts though.”

Images courtesy of Racing Photos