Jockey Joe Talamo isn’t saddled by age

For jockey Joe Talamo, success has come faster than birthdays.

In about nine months, he will be able to drink a beer, legally, after one of his prestigious victories. By then, he might just buy the brewery.

That the 20-year-old has achieved so much at such an early stage is best put into perspective by Talamo himself, when he talks about his beginnings at Fair Ground in New Orleans.

“My mom would take me to the track in the morning,” he says. “Some days, I was winning two and three races. Then, when I was done, my dad would come and pick me up and take me home.”

That was four years ago. Talamo was 16.

By March 2007, having been discovered by the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, Talamo showed up at Santa Anita. He was going to stay for a few days, then move on to New York permanently. But he won a bunch of races immediately, went to New York for a short stay and returned to compete in what has always been one of the most competitive jockey colonies in the world.

“In New York, it was windy and wet and cold,” Talamo says. “In L.A., it was 80 degrees every day. So I came back.”

Talamo was young, but not stupid.

In short order, Talamo won 250 races in the 2007 season, brought home purses worth nearly $11 million and was an easy winner of the Eclipse Award for the nation’s best apprentice jockey. In his 2007 season in California, he became the first apprentice jockey to win two Grade I races on the same card, July 7 at Hollywood Park.

He hadn’t even won his first race anywhere until July 2006.

His success rate is more accelerated than his need to shave.

Talamo won the Turf Sprint in the Breeders’ Cup in November, aboard California Flag, and has already traveled to Hong Kong and Dubai to race.

Indeed, had his biggest moment turned out the way many expected, they’d be predicting a Shoemaker or McCarron-like career for him right now. But horse racing has a way of dishing out reality to all ages, and Talamo’s dose came at last year’s Kentucky Derby, where he was scheduled to ride the favorite, I Want Revenge. The morning of the race, the horse was scratched because of an injury, the first time in memory that that had happened.

Talamo had a big crew of family and friends on hand.

“There is only my sister and me,” he says, “but my dad was one of 10 kids and I have cousins all over the place, a typical big Italian family, and I spent all my time taking care of everybody else.

“I don’t think what happened has really sunk in for me, even now.”

He has yet to ride in another Triple Crown race, and for many jockeys, that one shot is the only one. Not for Talamo.

He will be aboard Sidney’s Candy only 11 days from now in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and his John Sadler-trained horse is much more than one of those just happy to make the field. Sidney’s Candy moved high on the chart of short-odds runners in the Kentucky Derby with his impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3. Favored Lookin At Lucky was caught in a controversial snarl behind Talamo on the rail. But Sidney’s Candy drew away from the field so well, and with so little urging from Talamo, that many think he would have beaten Lookin At Lucky no matter what.

“He’s a wonderful horse,” Talamo says. “What he does so different from others is that he gets in the clear and relaxes, rather than digging harder and tightening up.”

Talamo’s Derby ride will make his life hectic for the next several weeks, at least.

He will ride in Wednesday’s opening day at Hollywood Park and also will be on hand Saturday, where a total of $860,000 will be offered in purses on a day labeled the California Gold Rush. Before, after and in between, he will fly back to Louisville to work Sidney’s Candy in preparation for the Derby.

On Derby day, the family will be on hand again. It’ll be mom, Joy, who wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer; dad, Joe, who supplemented his income from his air-conditioning company by working as a part-time horse trainer during the Louisiana winters; his sister, Christie, whom Talamo says had the family book smarts and is a hotel manager in New Orleans, and dozens of cousins.

Oh, yes, and Talamo’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Ellis, who helped ease the sadness of Derby Day last year. Her grandfather liked birds and so, with Talamo not riding, she decided to wager $10 across the board on a 50-1 longshot.

Her bet was on a horse named Mine That Bird.