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Don't let Joe Talamo's age fool you

He is only 19, but is headed for the Kentucky Derby and rides with the coolness of a grizzled veteran.

April 20, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

As scissors clicked and a razor buzzed, the unflappable Joe Talamo sat in the Santa Anita jockeys recreation room getting a haircut as a camera crew from Animal Planet hovered nearby recording his every move.

Talamo is 12 days away from riding in his first Kentucky Derby aboard one of the favorites, I Want Revenge, and those who wonder whether the 19-year-old is ready for the pressures associated with America's most famous horse race will soon learn how mature and prepared he truly is.

He ended the Santa Anita meeting on Sunday with 42 victories and a seventh-place tie in the jockey standings. He travels to Louisville on Tuesday to ride I Want Revenge in a morning workout, then will return Wednesday for the start of the Hollywood Park meeting before spending next week in Kentucky.

A hint of his demeanor was visible in the Wood Memorial on April 4, when I Want Revenge broke so poorly out of the starting gate that 99% of the time, a horse in a similar situation would have lost. But Talamo patiently directed I Want Revenge back into contention from last in the field of eight before guiding him through traffic in the stretch for a 1 1/2 -length triumph in his final tuneup for the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

"I think the Wood Memorial really opened up a lot of eyes into how good he actually is at such a young age," trainer Ron Ellis said of Talamo. "It was amazing for him to be under that much pressure, break poorly and not panic and do all the right things that a veteran rider would do."

While many of Talamo's peers are off to college or working part-time trying to figure out what they want to do, Talamo has known what he wanted to do since he was 8 and growing up in Marrero, La., where his father was an assistant trainer.

"I dedicated myself to being a jockey," he said in his distinct Cajun accent. "It's really all I worked toward. I'd wake up at 3:30 in the morning and go out to the track with my dad and really start from the bottom up."

He won the Eclipse Award in 2007 at the age of 17 as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey, and he has been a fixture on the Southern California riding circuit ever since.

"Off the track, he has stayed pretty much the same guy, and that's not easy to do with all the success he's had," Ellis said. "On the track, he's really matured and has so much more confidence. He's developing into a really top rider."

But the Kentucky Derby is no ordinary setting, with a maximum of 20 horses allowed in a 1 1/4 -mile race that features the world's most experienced jockeys.

Owners have been known to replace inexperienced jockeys before the race in the hope of having a better chance at winning. This month, Hall of Famer Mike Smith agreed to ride Chocolate Candy, the second-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby, replacing Joel Rosario.

However, trainer Jeff Mullins and co-owner Dave Lanzman, the connections for I Want Revenge, are sticking with Talamo, and one reason is because the young jockey knows the horse better than anyone, having ridden him in six of his eight starts and in more than 20 workouts.

"We've tried everything with him in the morning," Talamo said. "We'd work him behind horses, in front of horses, outside, inside. He was really ready for anything. But looking back, the Wood was probably a blessing in disguise because he overcame just about every bad obstacle there was, and that says a lot for a 3-year-old."

It also says a lot for a teenager whose work ethic leaves a positive impression on anyone he meets.

"I really committed myself with dedication and perseverance to be a jockey," he said. "I'm the type when I do something, I want to do it right and try to do my best."

I Want Revenge, a son of Stephen Got Even, has thrust himself into Derby contention on the strength of consecutive stakes victories on the dirt at Aqueduct after finishing third to Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof The Nile on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface.

"He's just an incredible horse," Talamo said. "I'm so proud of him. He's come a long way since I rode him at Oak Tree."

And having won on dirt, which is the surface at Churchill Downs, is an advantage, Talamo said.

"I feel he's starting to peak at the right time," he said.

Back in Louisiana, Talamo has so many fans and acquaintances that he received more than 60 messages on his cellphone after his ride in the Wood Memorial.

"I'm still trying to call back people from my voice mail," he said.

Imagine what his voice mail will be like if he rides the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby.


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