07/08/2007 11:00PM

View from the saddle rarely dull


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Hollywood Park jockeys' room looked like the baggage claim at LAX. Edgar Prado and Garrett Gomez were in from New York. Julien Leparoux and Rafael Bejarano made the trip from Kentucky. Yasunari Iwata and Hiroyuki Uchida had return tickets to Tokyo, while Michael Rodd, one of Australia's top young guns, had journeyed farthest of all.

By comparison, the 17-year-old apprentice Joe Talamo seemed like a grizzled California homeboy. He rode that way, too, winning both the first and second Grade 1 races of his blossoming career by taking the Vanity Handicap aboard Nashoba's Key and the Triple Bend Handicap with Bilo on the American Oaks undercard.

Talamo was not a factor in either of the weekend's biggest events - the $1 million CashCall Mile on Friday night and the $750,000 Oaks on Saturday afternoon - but that was only because he was sitting in the room, watching them on television. Teenage bugs are lucky if they land regular rides in such events, although in the case of the precocious Talamo, he may only need to wait until he is a seasoned veteran of 18.

"I love it in California," said Talamo, New Orleans to the core. "I can't wait for Del Mar."

Talamo is following the same trail blazed last year by Julien Leparoux, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 2006 who led North America in victories (403) and was eighth in the final purse standings. For the 2007 season, Talamo ranks fourth in wins and 10th in earnings, putting him ahead on the purse list of not only Leparoux, but also such emerging talents as Javier Castellano and Fernando Jara.

Leparoux came away with the weekend's biggest prize for guiding Lady of Venice to a 1 1/4-length win over a brace of Bobby Frankel fillies, Precious Kitten and Price Tag, in the CashCall Mile. And it was vintage Julien (if you can be vintage after only two years in the spotlight), handling the reins like shoestrings, then asking Lady of Venice for run just when she could wait no longer. She won by 1 1/4 lengths.

The CashCall was a fast-paced affair, with Price Tag, Arm Candy, and Koiuta - one of three Japanese fillies in the race - off and running from the start, hitting the half-mile in 46.04, and setting up a final time of 1:33.56. By comparison, the 10-furlong Oaks on the following afternoon was a much more languid outing. Edgar Prado, aboard heavily favored Price Tag and then victorious Panty Raid in the Oaks, was in the thick of them both.

"When my filly got real close on the backside, I was thinking, 'This is not good,' " Prado said of Price Tag's trip. 'I tried to cover her up, hoping she'd drop the bit, but I couldn't. She was pulling too hard."

Prado had reason to be concerned. This was a far different Price Tag than the switched-off stretch-runner who won the Matriarch over the same course and distance last November. The only difference was the time of day - or in the case of the CashCall, 9:17 p.m.

"She was relaxed in the paddock, but when she walked onto the track she started to get a little nervous," Prado said. "Maybe it was the lights, and the shadows out there. I never rode nighttime here. Compared to the Meadowlands - you don't see many shadows there. Here, I was surprised the lighting wasn't better."

In the Oaks, on a warm and sunny afternoon, the view was crystal-clear for all concerned when Rafael Bejarano's saddle slipped on the Irish filly Supposition about a half-mile into the race. Prado, positioned nearer the front on Panty Raid, had no clue such a drama had occurred. But riders like Alex Solis, on favored Valbenny, and Michael Rodd, on his Australian filly Anamato, had front-row seats.

"Poor bugger," Rodd said, feeling Bejarano's pain. "I had to go backwards, forwards, just giving him a little bit of room to maneuver. Alex was in a bit of trouble, too, because he got in behind Rafael and had to come back out. I think it might have cost him the race."

Panty Raid ended up beating Valbenny three-quarters of a length, with Anamato another three-quarters back in third and Supposition seventh, beaten barely four lengths. Asked what he had to do to prevent total disaster under such circumstances, Bejarano was no more than a few words into his reply when Rodd, dressing in the next cubicle, jumped in, using a water bottle as a teaching aid.

"Your center of balance goes from a big object, here, then rides up to a skinny one," Rodd said, pointing from the belly of the bottle to its screw-top neck. "You're fighting to keep your balance to make sure you stay on, and fighting to make sure the horse comes back to you in some kind of control. But if you pull too hard, you'll pull yourself over its head. So it's a fine line, and I'll tell ya, he did a very good job."

Bejarano thinks his filly would have been right there at the end of the Oaks had be been able to do more than simply hang on for the last three-quarters of a mile. Perhaps, but if nothing else the lesson was repeated, loud and clear. In racing, winning isn't the only thing. Sometimes just surviving counts for a lot.