06/08/2007 12:00AM

Talamo performing beyond his years


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Joe Talamo, the apprentice jockey dueling for the riding title at Hollywood Park, is 17 years old, could pass for 15 and carries himself as if he is going on 25. He's riding like a veteran, too.

Talamo, and his ever-present smile, are everywhere at Hollywood Park these days - in the stables most morning visiting trainers, shaking hands with owners in the paddock in the afternoon, and, increasingly, in the winner's circle.

He's even winning the big races. Last Sunday, Talamo guided Nashoba's Key to a remarkable rally through the final furlong to win the Grade 2 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap, the most prestigious of his 220 wins.

Since the start of the year, Talamo has won the riding title at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, his hometown track, and thrived since relocating to Southern California in April. Through Sunday, he was second in the standings at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting.

"I think it's great, being second-leading rider," he said, cracking a big grin in the stables last weekend.

Talamo will turn 18 next January. He has his apprentice allowance until September, which coincides with the end of the prestigious Del Mar meeting. His success already this year makes him the leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey.

"You have a tendency to forget that he's 17," said trainer Ron Ellis. "He's got a great attitude."

Talamo moved to California in late March at the insistence of trainer Bobby Frankel. He was scheduled to stay a week, saying at the time he wanted to fulfill a commitment to ride in New York through the spring. But after winning with four of his first 19 mounts at Santa Anita, Talamo and his agent, Ron Ebanks, decided to make California their base.

"We did so well at Santa Anita," Talamo said

Talamo said the move has made him a better rider.

"I think I've improved 100 percent from when I was riding at Fair Grounds," Talamo said. "The riders are so much better here. There are riders here that point something out whether I do something right of wrong. They critique me a lot."

Talamo has kept close ties with his Louisiana roots, talking to his parents on a daily basis. They travel to California for visits once a month. Talamo left high school after the 10th grade and says he is undergoing a home-school program to continue his education.

"I never did like school," Talamo said. "It was always about the horses. When school got out at 2:30 in the afternoon, my dad would get me to go gallop horses. I couldn't wait until Saturday and Sunday when I could do it full time."

Talamo is part of a youth movement in the Hollywood Park jockeys' room.

The only person keeping Talamo from the top of the Hollywood table is Michael Baze, the meeting's leading rider at the ripe age of 20. Baze is in the midst of his best year, having finished sixth in the standings at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting.

"I didn't expect to get this far," Baze said.

Talamo and Baze have dominated the Hollywood Park meeting. Entering Friday's card, Baze had 46 winners, 13 more than Talamo. The veteran David Flores was third with 22 wins and Richard Migliore was fourth with 21. Victor Espinoza was fifth with 19 wins. The meeting ends on July 15.

Talamo led for the first 10 days of the meeting, but lost his advantage after serving two three-day suspensions in late April and early May for causing interference. The suspensions are reminders that Talamo is still very much learning on the job.

Baze took the lead from Espinoza with a three-win day on May 4 and has held it since. Talamo got within three wins on May 27, but Baze pulled farther clear with a four-win day on May 31. Baze rode three winners on Sunday and Wednesday.

"Being the leading rider has been a goal," Baze said. "Hopefully, I can hang on."

Baze and Talamo are friendly rivals, Baze said. "We don't hang out," he said. "We can be serious and fun. I call him two-a-day Talamo."

Said Talamo, "We play pool together and cards. I'm competitive. We're good friends, but when we go out there it's all about winning."

Lately, both have been doing quite a lot of winning.