05/04/2009 12:00AM

Mentors gave Talamo a leg up

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Barbara D. Livingston
"The first Derby I remember watching I was 8 years old. I just remember watching Kent, on Real Quiet, pump his fist after he won."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Before the issue of Joe Talamo's age gets all blown out of proportion, it needs to be pointed out that, yes, he is young. But not that young.

He drives, he is eligible to vote, he owns real estate and occasionally shaves. He is conversant in current events, some of them not even related to horse racing, and he spends far less time tweeting on Twitter than we are led to believe.

It does hit home, though, when hit with the fact that the lucky rider of I Want Revenge, morning-line favorite for the 2009 running of the Kentucky Derby, was not born until Jan. 12, 1990.

Talamo was sitting in the Churchill Downs jockeys' room Wednesday afternoon, indulging someone three times his age with yet another trip down memory lane. Fortunately, in Talamo's case, it is a quick and exciting journey, populated mostly by horses and the circle of adults who let him tumble headlong toward this day.

Talamo grew up with horses in his big backyard in the New Orleans suburb of Marrero, a sensory experience that shaped everything to follow.

"We were the only family with horses, smelling up the neighborhood," Talamo said. "There's nothing like waking up to it - I love that smell.

"I used to have to wake up for school at 7," he went on. "But it would get light at 6 o'clock, so in case they'd knock on my door early, I'd hide some pillows under my sheets and sneak out and ride the horses. I used to carry a little watch, and at 6:50 I'd run back and climb back in bed and pretend I was sleeping. Well, the watch broke one day. It got to be, like, 7:45, and I'm out in this field, riding bareback. I see my mom come out, looking around, and I went to running."

Yeah, but how much trouble could he get into for such a minor transgression?

"I was late for school," Talamo replied. "That was trouble enough."

Don't expect too much drama. Talamo did fine in school, for as long as he went.

"I always knew I wanted to be a jockey," he said. "I didn't care about the school dance, anything like that. I just wanted to go to bed, wake up early, and go to the track. The first Derby I remember watching I was 8 years old. I just remember watching Kent, on Real Quiet, pump his fist after he won. I mean, I didn't faint, but I was almost in tears."

Kent Desormeaux, another Louisiana boy, has now won three Kentucky Derbies in Joe Talamo's brief lifetime. But then, Talamo has never lacked for inspiration. A steady stream of accomplished riders have sprung from southern Louisiana, including Eddie Delahoussaye, Craig Perret, Shane Sellers, and Robby Albarado.

"Robby, he was the man when I was 8 or 9," Talamo said. "I was scared to talk to him. When I finally got to meet him . . . I forgot what I said. 'Hello, Mr. Robby. How ya doin'?' The next day when I saw him, he gave me a whip. Man, that was like gettin' a guitar from a rock star. Needless to say, I wore out our old couch riding it with that whip."

There have been a handful of other teenagers in Talamo's spot, with a hot Kentucky Derby horse, but no patterns have emerged. Steve Cauthen, an old soul at 18, came through with Affirmed in 1978 and still ranks among the most respected individuals in the game. Ronnie Franklin, who rode Spectacular Bid the following year, ended up squandering his career on drugs.

"I've been fortunate," Talamo said. "I've always had good people around me. But it was really kind of hard to get mixed up with the wrong crowd, since I was always at the racetrack. Which there can be bad elements there, too. But I was always with guys 40 and above, so I think that helped me mature a lot."

Talamo pays homage to a line of mentors who have seen in him the spark of something special, beginning with his father, Joe; trainer Connie Tassistro; his first big-time agent, Ronnie Ebanks; and the late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, a five-time Derby winner who encountered the raw version of Talamo as a steward at Louisiana Downs.

"I used to see him a lot," Talamo said, then added with a grin, "for riding infractions.

"They said he was real sour, but we got along great," he went on. "He never really talked to me like a steward. He'd talk to me almost like a mentor. I mean, I was only 16. I'd been riding a month. He told me about switching sticks when a horse would lug in, getting into them, picking 'em up, keeping them in the bridle, and always stay on the rail. When he said he won five Kentucky Derbies, I thought, 'What you talkin' to me for?' "

That was three whole years ago. Since then, Talamo has won an Eclipse Award as champion apprentice, made a successful move to California, starred in the Animal Planet reality show "Jockeys" and started dating Elizabeth Ellis, daughter of trainer Ron Ellis. He's not certain that things might be happening too fast, but then again, it might not be a bad thing.

"When I was small, I remember Michael Jordan saying that when he did his best, no matter how fast things were going, to him they were in slow motion, and he could move right through the other guys," Talamo said. "I don't know much about basketball, but I know what he was talking about. In a race sometimes, when you're in a zone like that, you can see every hole that opens up, sometimes before it happens."

Talamo tapped into that zone in a big way in the Wood Memorial when I Want Revenge balked at the start. He kept his cool, dealt with traffic, and won the race anyway, in a performance that raised the profile of both horse and jockey. Now they stand at the brink of racing history.

Talamo shook his head at the thought and tried to look wide-eyed and innocent. Then those dark, trademark eyebrows lowered just a touch, and his baby blue eyes went cool, as if the suggestion that he might get rattled was getting close to an insult. Then he smiled.

"Nervous?" he shrugged. "Naw, I'm having too much fun. Now, my first date with Elizabeth. For that I was nervous."