01/19/2007 12:00AM

Young man off to flying start

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NEW ORLEANS - It was a dank, misty afternoon at Fair Grounds and the light was already failing as the mud-spattered horses and jockeys returned following Thursday's seventh race, but 16-year-old apprentice jockey Joe Talamo III was beaming like a sunny day in June. Talamo had just ridden his third winner of the day, and his mount, Flambeau Man, was now undefeated in four starts at the meet. It was the kind of scene that has become commonplace this season, as Talamo turns the race for leading rider into his own special coming-out party.

When trainer Tom Amoss and Talamo's agent, Tony Martin, watched the replay, they marveled as Flambeau Man gobbled up ground through the stretch and was up to take the lead nearing the wire.

"Just see how quickly Joe switches sticks," said Amoss. "He's so much wiser beyond his years. In the paddock my owner said, 'You look like you're 13.' I told my owner 'Not when he's in the saddle he doesn't.' He looks like he's about 35 when he's in the saddle."

"It takes most riders three or four years to get themselves settled," said Martin, "and he's done it right away."

The win aboard Flambeau Man was Talamo's 54th of the meet, 21 more than Robby Albarado, a six-time leading rider at Fair Grounds, who has won the last three titles, including last year's Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meet.

"He's the difference in the jockey colony here this year," said Albarado. "He's a good little rider."

Albarado was Talamo's favorite jockey when he was growing up in Marrero, La., across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and coming to Fair Grounds with his father, Joe Talamo Jr.

"It's unbelievable," Talamo said. "I would go to the Fair Grounds and watch him be the leading rider year after year, and I'd say to myself, 'Man, I wish I could do that.' Now it's happening. I've gotta pinch myself in the mornings sometimes to make myself believe it's really happening."

Talamo, now 5-2 and 107 pounds, started out in horse racing by accompanying his father to his job as an assistant to trainer Connie Tassistro.

"My father worked as an assistant to Connie for like 20 years," said Talamo, "and I went out there with him at 4:30 in the morning and I started hot-walking and mucking stalls, I just fell in love with the whole process. Connie told me if you start at the bottom there's no way to go but the top."

Three years ago Talamo became an exercise rider for Zeke Zeringue, who gave him tips on galloping horses and brought him to compete at the Quarter Pole, a bush track in Duson, La., where many other local riders got their start.

Talamo didn't stay there long, though. Last February he took out an exercise rider's license and began working horses at Evangeline Downs. Later in the year he rode at Louisiana Downs and began getting on the usual hopeless longshots beginning riders are relegated to, finally winning on his 23rd mount, Well Heaven Sake, on July 9. His reputation grew and he ended up with a respectable 45 wins at the meet. To begin his riding career, Talamo had to leave school. He is currently taking a two-year Internet business course to complete his high school education.

Coming into the Fair Grounds meet, Talamo was regarded as a live apprentice rider who would bear watching, but he quickly proved he was more than that. He won the first race on the Thanksgiving Day opener and never looked back.

"Coming here, I wasn't scared, but I was uncertain," said Talamo. "I had been riding at Louisiana Downs, but the jockey colony at the Fair Grounds is so much better. If you had told me at the beginning of the meet I'd be leading rider now, I'd say no way."

Talamo's work ethic has paid dividends. Through Thursday he has won 103 career races from 627 mounts, and his mounts have earned more than $1.9 million. He works a lot of the horses in the mornings that he wins on in the afternoons.

"I think one of the things that helped me get off to a fast start was that when the track opened for training I was one of the few jockeys who were here," he said. "Most of the top jockeys were still up in Kentucky. So I got a chance to work a lot of good horses. I work 13, 14 horses every morning, which is unheard of."

Trainers like the way Talamo listens as much as the way he rides.

"He's easy to talk to, and he's a hard worker," said Dallas Stewart. "He's very patient for a bug boy. He finishes hard and he switches sticks well. He doesn't seem to get into a lot of traffic trouble. I hope I can help his career, and I hope he can help me, too."