01/16/2013 5:34PM

Hovdey: Leparoux, Talamo remain stars well past apprentice Eclipse Award days

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Barbara D. Livingston
Julien Leparoux, winner of the Eclipse Award as top apprentice of 2006, remains a star as a journeyman in Southern California.

Those 250 or so souls burdened with the responsibility of voting for the Eclipse Awards are able to go to bed each night secure in the knowledge that while they may not have chosen the horse or the person who ends up winning the prize they at least have spent their vote on an individual of proven quality in every single category…but one.

An Eclipse Award vote for an apprentice jockey is a guessing game, a crapshoot, a stab in the dark. The winner could be gone from the main room in a matter of a few years, reduced to working horses for pocket money and hustling rides at the fairs. Or that winner could end up a full-fledged champion, a household name, a future member of the Hall of Fame

More likely, they will land somewhere in between.

Critics of the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockeys – and this writer has been among them – worry that an apprentice category tends to warp the fundamental intent of the awards themselves, which purport to honor a season’s worth of work at the top of the game. With a few notable exceptions, apprentices are not found at the top of the game, or at least not right away.

And yet those exceptions, when they come along, give the sport a youthful boost that offers hope for what sometimes seems like a murky future. During the first decade of the current century there was a red-hot run of young riders who won the award, making an awfully good case for the status quo.

Eddie Castro (2003), went on to win nine races on a Calder card in 2005. In 2006, he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile and more recently had another good year in 2012 with purses of more than $6 million. Brian Hernandez Jr. (2004) hung tough as a hard-working journeyman until he broke through in a big way in 2012 winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Fort Larned, while Emma-Jayne Wilson (2005) won the Queen’s Plate in 2007 and each season continues to rank as one of Canada’s very best.

Julien Leparoux (2006) and Joe Talamo (2007) set the bar even higher. Leparoux doubled-down on his apprentice Eclipse Award by winning the full-fledged journeyman’s version in 2009, while Talamo has maintained the pace he established as an apprentice to be among a handful of California’s elite. In 2012, Leparoux was seventh in the national money standings with mount earnings of $12.7 million. Talamo, with $11.8 million, ranked ninth.

Both young riders find themselves in the same Santa Anita Park jocks’ room these days as another apprentice finds himself on the verge of national honors at the Eclipse Awards Dinner at Gulfstream Park on Saturday night. Whoever wins could do a whole lot worse than looking to Julien and Joe for inspiration.

“Wasn’t that about 20 years ago?” Talamo said with a laugh when asked to recall his Eclipse Award season.

“Even before I started riding, winning the Eclipse Award was a big goal of mine, whether it was for apprentice jockey or journeyman jockey,” Talamo recalled. “It’s the height of our sport, and when you win one of them you know you’ve done something right.”

Talamo, who turned 23 last Saturday, is a Louisiana boy while Leparoux, 29, migrated from his native France to begin his riding career in the Midwest.

“They have an award for the leading apprentice in France,” Leparoux said. “But it is not a vote. It is always for the apprentice who wins the most races.”

Leparoux won both the most races and the most purse money among apprentices in 2006.

“When I started that year at Turfway I really didn’t think about it,” Leparoux said. “I was just trying to do good and win as many races as I could.”

Mission accomplished. He ended up leading all North American jockeys that year with 403 winners.

“When I lost the bug at the end of September that year, I didn’t feel any different really,” Leparoux added. “I knew it was important to concentrate on winning races, because sometimes that is the most difficult part of the transition from apprentice to journeyman.”

Talamo lost his apprentice allowance at the end of July in 2007. He was asked how he felt the day he woke up without the benefit of the five-pound allowance.

“I felt about a pound lighter,” Talamo said. “I definitely ate a lot more that day. To me, I feel like I’m doing a lot better than when I had the bug. There’s a mental change, because everybody kind of looks at you differently when you’re an apprentice. I think they ride you more for that five-pound allowance than your talent or your strength.

“In fact, I couldn’t wait to get rid of the bug,” Talamo added. “In my mind, I didn’t want to be some apprentice sensation. I wanted to be a great jockey, and I was anxious to start proving it. Obviously, I’m still working towards that goal.”

“Apprentice years can be either really good or really bad,” Talamo noted. “Sometimes when you do really good I can see where it will get to your head. When it comes to you so easy, you can make the wrong assumptions about how you got there. You can think you’ve made it, then you won’t go anywhere. I know when I was an apprentice I thought I knew a lot. But I didn’t know [bull].”

Talamo proved he could play at the top of the sport with mounts like Nashoba’s Key. They won Grade 1 Vanity Handicap while he was an apprentice, then the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon after her turned journeyman.

“Things were happening so fast,” Talamo said. “It seemed like all I had to do with a lot of horses was just point ‘em in the right direction. But it’s a totally different thing being a journeyman rider five years later.”

Both Talamo and Leparoux benefited from spending a good portion of their apprenticeships riding among respected veterans with national reputations: Talamo in Southern California and Leparoux in Kentucky.

“Just think about the guys I could talk to every day,” Talamo said. “Guys like Mike Smith and Garrett Gomez. Even if I thought I did something right, they’d help me do it better. And believe me, they still let me know when I’ve done something wrong.”