04/07/2009 11:00PM

Talamo has to keep that steady hand


ARCADIA, Calif. - Writing with confidence about a jockey and his agent is always taking a chance. Things can change fast, much faster than the 24-hour news cycle can accommodate. It's better to save the subject matter for a blog or a tweet.

In contrast, Scotty McClellan has maintained a relatively stable world. He represented Chris McCarron for 21 years, Alex Solis for 16 years, and Corey Nakatani for about a week and a half, all tenures that exceeded industry norms. Along the way, McClellan's riders won two Kentucky Derbies and finished second four times during a span of 15 years, which brings us to the challenge at hand. Can McClellan win his third Derby as an agent with Joe Talamo, a teenager who has never ridden the race before?

Don't be too amazed. It has been done before. Derby Week trivia parties will note that both Alonzo Clayton and James Perkins were 15 when they won their Kentucky Derby debuts. It should be pointed out, however, that these occurred in an era when neither the Kentucky Derby nor child labor laws were of particular importance. Clayton's colt Azra beat two horses in 1892, while Perkins and Halma were best of four in 1895.

In more civilized times, Ira "Babe" Hanford was 18 when he won the 1936 Derby aboard Bold Venture (14 ran that day), while Bill Boland was 17 in May of 1950, when Middleground beat Hill Prince and 13 others. Later on, there were back-to-back teens in the late 1970s, with Steve Cauthen on Affirmed and Ronnie Franklin on Spectacular Bid.

Talamo turned 19 on Jan. 12, which means the issue of his maturity will linger right up to the moment the gates open for the 135th Kentucky Derby on May 2. It helps that Talamo will ride into the Derby aboard Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge. And after the trip Talamo experienced in the Wood, many questions of his grace under pressure have been asked and answered. They overcame a troubled start and more traffic than the Belt Parkway on a Friday afternoon, and still managed to win, with Talamo steady on the wheel all the way.

McClellan was home in California for the race, dealing with late entries and trying to get to a TV in time to watch his jock in the pressure-packed Derby prep.

"I'm watching HRTV with my son, Max, and a minute and a half to the race I hear that the Wood will be blacked out live and shown on tape delay," McClellan said. "I tried ESPN, ESPN2, NBC, everywhere, until I heard it was on something called MSG."

Luckily for McClellan, Debbie Olsen of the Santa Anita publicity department answered the phone when he called the press box and held it up to the TV monitor as the Wood was run on the Madison Square Garden network. What he heard was alarming.

"Not one thing Tom Durkin said sounded good," McClellan said. "He got left, I Want Revenge is 10 back. He's blocked. He's behind a wall of horses. I Want Revenge has nowhere to go! Five minutes later we got to see the replay, and it was as bad as it sounded."

The Wood will always be the most fascinating of this year's Derby preps, and figures to remain a key moment in the emergence of Talamo as a riding star. Still, were it not for a bolt of blind luck way back in October, someone else might be writing the tale.

As entries were being drawn for the Oct. 4, 2008, program of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, McClellan found himself without a mount in the sixth, a maiden race for 2-year-olds going six furlongs.

"As I recall, the race filled big," McClellan said. "I had someone for the race, but they canceled. R.C. Ebanks" - a fellow agent - "had two in there and asked if I was open. I said yes and he said he'd let me know if I could get on his other one. He came back and said I was on."

The name of the colt was I Want Revenge. Talamo finished third that day, won the next time out, and has been part of the package for trainer Jeff Mullins ever since. Now, less than a month from the Derby, Talamo could be on the favorite. If he needs any advice, there's plenty out there, including this from John Sellers, the Hall of Famer, who was 24 when he won the 1961 Kentucky Derby aboard Carry Back. Years later, he recalled the occasion for Sports Illustrated:

"That was my third Derby," Sellers said of the '61 running. "The first two were on horses that didn't have much of a chance. The pressure builds and builds because you have the favorite. As the day of Carry Back's Derby approached, I was beside myself. I felt that every rider in the jockeys' room was out to get me. Heck, I even thought the valets were out to get me. I got so paranoid I even thought the clerk of scales was out to get me. On the day of the race, the waiting drove me crazy. About half an hour before I went out to ride Carry Back, I picked up a pool cue and shot some pool to see how jittery I really was. When I could sink the balls, I knew I'd be okay, because my hands weren't shaking on the cue."

Rack 'em, Joe.