10/21/2007 11:00PM

Not your typical teenager

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Joe Talamo said that the emergence of Nashoba's Key, from an unraced 4-year-old filly in January to an undefeated Breeders' Cup favorite in October, is "unlike anything I've ever seen."

He said it with a straight face, too, but he knew it sounded funny. What he has seen, when compared to the collection of jockeys he will be riding against this week at Monmouth Park, isn't a whole lot. Then again, spending every waking moment for the past 10 years living and breathing all things Thoroughbred has to count for something.

Talamo, who does not turn 18 until Jan. 12, is a classic Louisiana track brat, brewed in the basics from the age of 7 by such mentors as Connie Tassistro, Zeke Zeringue, and his dad, Joe Talamo Jr. When he made the leap from his junior year in high school to the jocks' room at Louisiana Downs in June 2006, it was the most natural move in the world, the only graduation that made sense.

Still, it's a strange game that pits fuzzy-cheeked teens against guys with grandkids, going full speed with championship honors on the line. Among the seasoned pros with sweet rides on Saturday's Breeders' Cup card are 41-year-old Calvin Borel, 42-year-old Mike Smith, 43-year-old Alex Solis, and 46-year-old Mario Pino. And they've all got boots older than Talamo.

If Talamo can take the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf aboard Nashoba's Key, he will be the youngest winning jockey in the history of the Breeders' Cup. Fernando Jara was six weeks shy of his 19th birthday when he won the Classic with Invasor in 2006. Before that it was Walter Guerra, who was 22 when he backed into the 1984 Juvenile Fillies aboard Outstandingly, on the disqualification of 22-year-old Pat Valenzuela and Fran's Valentine.

So much for the tyranny of the calendar. Carla Gaines, who trains Nashoba's Key for breeder Warren Williamson, has not spent a sleepless moment concerned that the fate of her filly lies in the hands of a young man ineligible to either drink or vote, although that might not be a bad thing.

"I think Joe and the filly are a lot alike," Gaines said. "I mean, the way she acts, would you think she's only had seven races in her life? How has she come this far with only seven races? And how long has he had to do what he's done, a year and a half?"

Not even that. Since his first winner, on July 9, 2006, Talamo has won the Fair Grounds riding title and finished second in the Hollywood Park standings, as an apprentice. Talamo turned journeyman at Del Mar on July 22, won three races that afternoon, and ended up second in the standings. He is currently sitting third at Santa Anita for the Oak Tree meet, during which he won the two most important grass races, the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial on Artiste Royale and the Yellow Ribbon on Nashoba's Key, his fourth straight major stakes win on the filly.

"People ask me if I'm surprised at what's happened," Talamo said, sitting in his Santa Anita cubicle before last Sunday's card. "Actually, yes and no. I mean, from 7 years old I really didn't have a childhood. While kids I knew were going to the movies on Friday nights, I was in bed by 8 or 9, because I had to be up at 4 a.m. to go to work at the track.

"But this is what I saw myself doing, even then," Talamo went on. "It was all about the racetrack. I guess I missed out on having more friends, but this is what I put my mind to, being a jockey."

As a 17-year-old small-town boy earning in the mid-six figures and living in L.A., Talamo would seem to be a prime candidate for all manner of ruinous temptation. Of this he is aware.

"I like to think I learn from other people's mistakes," he said. "And I've seen plenty. I grew up with four other bug boys, and they were better than me, with their attitude, selling themselves. But look where they turned out to be. Nowhere.

"I was lucky, though, in the people I was around when I was a kid, hanging out with adults and really being with them," Talamo added. "I was 10 going on 30."

Talamo is taking correspondence courses to complete his high school GED, and he says he is keeping up. He will not be lugging the books to Monmouth, but that doesn't mean there won't be homework.

"I've never ridden there, so you can bet I'll be talking to anyone I can about it, and watching every turf race replay I can get ahold of," he said.

And if he ever lets the least little flutter of nerves creep into the equation, all he needs to do is think about Nashoba's Key, a filly who does not know what it is to lose.

"It's hard to put in words how it feels to be on a filly like her," Talamo said. "It's unique. It's the ultimate, to feel that power. I mean, it's only my first year of riding, so I don't really know what a great horse is. But I do know that for the rest of my career, I'll be looking for another Nashoba's Key."