11/28/2006 1:00AM

Talamo no one-race wonder


It was surprising enough when Joe Talamo, all of 16 years old, and just months into his career as a jockey, won the first race of the Fair Grounds meet - a first race that meant something extra, since racing was back in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. But young Talamo apparently intends to keep his name on the tongues of New Orleanians longer than a single day. After the first week of Fair Grounds racing, Talamo sat tied with Donnie Meche atop the jockey standings with six wins - not bad for an 11th-grader.

Talamo is no normal high-schooler. Poised, unusually mature, and - perhaps best of all - a natural lightweight, Talamo for one week at least suggested that his fine showing at Louisiana Downs, where he won 45 races during his first stint as a rider, was no fluke.

"I'm telling you, he has a chance to be leading rider here if he doesn't get days too many times," said the veteran trainer Connie Tassistro. "Horses just run for him - he's a natural."

Tassistro - "Mr. Connie" to Talamo - once employed Talamo's father around his barn, and Talamo, who lives across the Mississippi River from New Orleans in Marrero, La., roomed with Tassistro during the Louisiana Downs season.

Talamo attended Archbishop Shaw, a Catholic high school, until this year, when he began home-schooling, but his life has long revolved around the track. Suddenly, with his opening-week performance at Fair Grounds, Talamo has attained mini-celebrity status.

"My friends and all, we keep in touch, and to tell you the truth, they're kind of surprised by this," Talamo said Tuesday afternoon. "Ever since I was 6, 7, 8 years old I was telling them I was going to be a jockey, but that's a professional athlete, and not many people get that chance."

In many cases, horsemen throw speed-oriented mounts to apprentice riders. There's less thinking involved then, less polish required, the idea being to take advantage of a break in the weights. Talamo, however, has ridden mostly come-from-behind horses at Fair Grounds, displaying a knack for timing and a nose for the wire.

"I'd rather come from behind, to tell you the truth," Talamo said. "I talked to Eddie Delahoussaye one day - him and Pat Day, they're my idols - and he said, 'All I can tell you are two things: good luck, and it's not the first quarter that counts, but the last.' So, I've really kept that in mind."

Talamo weighs in at about 107 pounds. He said he takes after his mother, who has stayed rail-thin beyond her youth, and said he doesn't expect to grow a great deal more. Which means Joseph Talamo might be a name racing fans will be hearing for several years to come.

Numbers begin to dip after big start

The Fair Grounds season started strongly on opening day and posted solid numbers through opening week, but by Sunday, business had dipped to levels more typical of recent history.

Comparing this year's meet to last year's doesn't mean much, since 2005-06 was the Fair Grounds-at-Louisiana Downs meet. Looking at the last four race meets in New Orleans, beginning with the 2001-02 season, this year's four-day opening week posted high-water marks in ontrack attendance (an average of 4,541), ontrack handle ($393,632), and all-sources handle (about $2,992,000 per day). In the last four New Orleans seasons, the highest average opening-week attendance was 4,479 in 2002, the highest average daily ontrack handle was $355,961 in 2001, and the highest average daily all-sources handle was about $2,925,000 in 2003.

The opening-week gains this year were due in large part to opening day, when a record 8,732 fans attended, eager to welcome racing back after Hurricane Katrina. By Friday, however, daily all-sources handle was running behind 2003 levels, and on Sunday, attendance, ontrack handle, and all-sources handle fell below the average figures from the previous four seasons.

Handle at offtrack betting parlors has been strong since the parlors began coming back on line after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Still, the population base in the New Orleans metro area remains significantly diminished in the post-Katrina era, and it remains to be seen how the current demographic realities will affect Fair Grounds.