11/23/2006 12:00AM

Young rider gets off to a winning start

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NEW ORLEANS - Joseph Talamo, the 16-year-old apprentice jockey, wasted no time making an impression on the hometown fans, winning the first race of the 2006-2007 Fair Grounds meet on a Louisiana-bred claimer for trainer Larry Robideaux.

Talamo was born and raised in the town of Marrero, which sits across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and got an official exercise rider's license only last February. He rode the first meet of his career this past summer at Louisiana Downs, and quickly made a hit there with horsemen, winding up tied with journeyman Gerard Melancon for eighth in the jockey standings with 45 winners.

The significance of winning the first race of the first Fair Grounds post-Katrina meet was not lost on Talamo, who will turn 17 on Jan. 12.

"It feels terrific," Talamo said, after extricating himself from a throng around the winner's circle.

Talamo's father worked as an assistant to longtime Louisiana trainer Connie Tassistro, which gave Talamo his first taste of racetrack life. He said he started coming to the track at age 8 and began galloping at 12, working at a Wagner, La., training center for Zeke Zeringue.

Talamo said his Louisiana Downs season "started out a bit slow, but after that, everything came together pretty quickly."

Tony Martin, young Talamo's agent, also books mounts for E.J. Perrodin, one of the oldest riders at Fair Grounds.

Mouton a late-bloomer

Is it possible for a 62-year-old trainer to have a breakout season?

Trainer Pat Mouton did not just arrive on the block, but his presence at Fair Grounds comes on a greater scale this year. Mouton for years was a 30-horse kind of guy, but he estimates that the number of horses he trains has doubled in just three years. This season, Mouton was given an entire barn for the Fair Grounds meet. He has filled it up and has spillover at the track and on the farm.

"I have 60-plus right now," Mouton said. "It's a lot more stress, but I don't mind it at all. It's good for me."

Mouton had a strong Fair Grounds-at-Louisiana Downs meet last year, and at the regular Louisiana Downs meet this summer he finished second to Cole Norman in the trainer standings with 74 victories. And having entered 11 horses on the first four racing programs at Fair Grounds, Mouton has signaled his intentions for the upcoming season: "I'm here to run," he said.

Mouton has a handful of stakes horses, including a 2-year-old filly named Wine Diva, who already has won a two-turn turf stakes, and Wine Diva has been nominated to the $300,000 Delta Princess on Dec. 1. Mouton said he would look at the prospective starters in that race before determining whether to send Wine Diva to Delta or point for a race here at the Fair Grounds.

Plant life part of recovery mission

In the dark days following Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was a closed city under military control, a handful of locals held on determinedly to their home turf. The Fair Grounds track horticulturalist, Alice Stevenson, was one of those locals.

Stevenson braved imprisonment to save what she could of the plants strewn about the wreckage of the racetrack. Now that the track has reopened amid a riot of colorful floral arrangements, Stevenson proudly shows off the herbal triage she has assembled near the refurbished paddock, about 20 plants and small trees assembled in a hodgepodge of pottery.

"All of them don't look too good, but some of 'em can still be saved," she said. "I had to sneak past the National Guard to get into the building to get them. It was pitch-black in there except for where the sun came through where the roof used to be."

Stevenson went around the grounds and planted among the ruins even before renovation began.

"We had petunias two months after Katrina, green and white for Churchill," she said.

Opening day brought a smile to Stevenson's face, even as she clutched a small vase ready for its next entry.

"I keep the Fair Grounds blooming from the front gate to the finish line."

Duplicate Award back at home

Trainer Diana Soileau has an uncoupled entry in Saturday's 10th race at Fair Grounds. Red at the Helm is the marginally shorter price at 9-2 in the $5,000 claiming race, but Soileau thinks 5-1 Duplicate Award may have an edge in that the 5-year-old mare is a horse for the course. In 4 starts over the surface, Duplicate Award has a 1-1-1 record.

"The other mare has better form," said Soileau, "but Duplicate Award has changed a lot since she's come back to train at Fair Grounds. She was developing some back end problems over at Louisiana Downs, but she seems to love the track here. She just glides over it."

Duplicate Award hasn't raced since Sept. 1, but Soileau says she hasn't been holding the mare out waiting for Fair Grounds.

"Every time I entered her," she said, "the race didn't go."

Though Soileau says she believes in the horses-for-courses angle, she's not ruling out her other entry.

"Red at the Helm has never run at Fair Grounds," she said. "Maybe she'll like it here."

- additional reporting by John Swenson