04/02/2008 11:00PM

Out to ace it in his first shot


ARCADIA, Calif. - This may sound old-fashioned, but it should be okay to be 18 and still be doing a few things for the first time, like drinking, driving, and operating particular forms of emotionally complicated machinery.

On the other hand, a certain amount of youthful exuberance in a sport like horse racing might come in handy, which is why it is not a surprise to see a handful of noteworthy teenagers scattered throughout the history of the Santa Anita Derby.

Hall of Famer Jack Westrope was 17 when he rode in his first local Derby in 1935, finishing second aboard Whiskolo. He liked it so much he came back as an 18-year-old to win it with Stagehand.

Steve Valdez, Aaron Gryder, and Pat Valenzuela all were 17 when they rode their first Santa Anita Derbies. Only difference was, Valenzuela won his, aboard Codex in 1980.

Steve Cauthen was just 16 when he rode in the race for the first and only time in 1977 - he finished ninth on Highland Light - but he would have won it the following year if he hadn't missed riding Affirmed because of a suspension. Kids.

Then there was Bill Shoemaker, who was 18 when he appeared in the 1950 Santa Anita Derby, his first of 33 rides in it. By the time he retired, in 1990, Shoemaker had won the race eight times.

"Eight?" exclaimed Joe Talamo when hit with the stat. "He won eight? Wow, man, I'd be happy to just win one."

Talamo, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey of 2007 who turned 18 in January, will get his chance on Saturday when he makes his Santa Anita Derby debut aboard the outsider Coast Guard. Stakes winners Colonel John, Yankee Bravo, Bob Black Jack, and El Gato Malo will try to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. But as longshots go, Coast Guard must be considered live, based at least on his second-place finish in the Robert Lewis Stakes earlier in the meet.

Talamo will be the fifth jockey to handle Coast Guard in this, his sixth start. He threw a leg over the colt Thursday morning for the first time in a routine gallop, which is unusual, but no big deal for Talamo.

"I remember when I was 13 and started at Zeke Zeringue's place," Talamo said, referring to the Louisiana training center where he cut his teeth. "I used to gallop 20, 25 a day. In between I'd clean their stalls, put the water in, and then go cut grass and work the weed-eater all around the racetrack. I don't remember sitting down much. And I did tell Mr. Dave today that I'd do the colt's stall if he wanted."

Dave Hofmans, already staffed, was impressed but declined Talamo's offer. The trainer will settle for a thinking man's ride on Saturday with Coast Guard, who has the style to stay in the thick of the race from the beginning. Coast Guard's last race was a disastrous foray to Bay Meadows for the El Camino Real Derby, in which he finished eighth of nine as the favorite.

"I think you can pretty much throw that race out, being his first race on dirt after running on these synthetics," Talamo said. "He felt awful good this morning, and he's been working up a storm."

Talamo would have been aboard for Coast Guard's last work on March 27 had he not been otherwise occupied in Dubai, riding Bushwacker two days later in the $2 million Golden Shaheen. Again, it was a first-time experience, and even though he did not hit the board, the straightaway six-furlong event was invigorating.

"I mean, I rode Quarter Horses when I was younger," Talamo said. "But never three-quarters of a mile. That's about four lead changes."

Since accepting the Eclipse Award in January, Talamo has been trying hard not to fall into the classic sophomore slump. Last year he was a strong second to Michael Baze during the Hollywood summer meet and was second to Baze again at Del Mar. Entering this week's action, Talamo found himself in 10th in the local standings.

"It's expected to have slumps now and then, for whatever reason," Talamo said. "If anything, I feel like I'm riding better than ever, just because I keep learning so much from veteran riders around me. Basically, it all comes down to getting on the right horses."

As he ages, in a very public fishbowl, Talamo will continue to dispense with "firsts" and get on with the rest of his career. He has done a Japan Cup and a Breeders' Cup. He has fired and hired agents (Ron Ebanks out, Scotty McClellan in), won a Grade 1 event (the Yellow Ribbon on Nashoba's Key) and lost a world-class mount (Nashoba's Key). He even took up golf, a sinful pastime for a working man if there ever was one.

"About four months ago," Talamo confirmed. "I'm not that good. But if you can believe it, I got a hole in one! It was just over here on the Arcadia three-par. I had two witnesses."

Good. At least now the pressure is off.