Wednesday April 29th, 2009

LOUISVILLE -- As 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo prepared to enter the parking lot party tent where Tuesday's Kentucky Derby post position draw would take place, he was stopped by a crew from the reality series Jockeys, which airs on the cable network Animal Planet and is currently filming its second season. His wireless microphone was adjusted and activated, ensuring that his every interaction would be captured.

Talamo, wearing a light gray pinstriped suit, paused for the adjustment, and then slipped smoothly into the tent. If you have seen Jockeys, you know Talamo is one of the stars of the series, bringing the full package of poise, confidence and likeability. If you only landed on Animal Planet because you punched the wrong numbers in search of Spike TV, you would want to stop to watch Talamo anyway.

Here he sits through the Derby post position draw, a soporific exercise that just barely moved the entertainment needle when ESPN tarted it up for television, and is just painful now that ESPN is gone from the process. I Want Revenge, the 3-1 morning line favorite, draws the No. 13 post position in a 20-horse field and when the formalities are finished, Talamo faces down a cluster of reporters.

The No. 13 post? "I would have liked seven or 11 better,'' he says.

When three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert sticks his head into the scrum and asks, "What about your strategy for the race,'' Talamo shoots back without hesitation, "Beat Bob Baffert.''

This goes on for several minutes before Talamo is hauled away for another engagement. I shake hands, introduce myself (this often does not happen at the start of a scrum, but afterward) and ask if we can speak privately later. "Absolutely,'' he says. And then, just to underscore the exchange, he winks. Nice touch, the type of act that can come off as superficial but which Talamo pulls off as sincere.

Understand this: horse racing could use a face. It has a litany of economic maladies, a performance-enhancing substance problem that is somewhere between problematic and epidemic but still largely underground, and a disconnect between its storied past and its uncertain future. And most of all: a shrinking audience for its live races.

It is entirely possible that this train has left the station forever, that for many reasons, horse racing will never again be what it was half a century ago. But if the sport is to find any buoyancy, it needs stars.

Make no mistake, Talamo can be one of those stars. (No, he can't be Eddie Arcaro or Bill Shoemaker or Steve Cauthen, shadows from long bygone eras. But Talamo can reach outside an increasingly insular game, and help it regain some small measure of popularity and trust).

His story hits familiar notes. He grew up in Marrero, La., across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. His father, also Joe, worked as an assistant trainer. Talamo was on the back of a horse before his first birthday and doing menial work at FairGrounds Race Track when he was in elementary school. He learned to ride in his back yard and to compete in barrel races and then he rode a few times at the Quarter Pole, one of Louisiana's legendary bush tracks. He graduated to professional racing and in 2007, at age 17, won the Eclipse Award as the best apprentice rider in the country.

The ride has been a blur, but Talamo seems to be that rare individual for whom it is no more disarming to be watched than to be ignored. Part of that is his personality. "He has a great way with people,'' says family friend Chick Foret, a New Orleans attorney who helps Talamo with some financial matters and is with him in Louisville.

Part of it is the experience of Jockeys. The series was filmed last fall during the monthlong Oak Tree race meeting at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, where Talamo now rides full-time. It was aired during the late winter and early spring. "I had a camera on me all the time,'' says Talamo. "I got used to it. It made me very comfortable with the media, in front of any cameras.''

Then he adds: "I don't think it made me a better rider.''

That part he has done on his own. For those not watching reality TV on the Animal Planet, Talamo's ride on I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial on April 11 was an introduction to the rider's skill set. I Want Revenge, the favorite in the race, was left at the gate and a distant last into the first turn. "Most horses, they wouldn't even have a chance to hit the board at that point,'' says trainer Jeff Mullins.

Talamo might have panicked, but he did not. He got I Want Revenge into the race on the backstretch and maneuvered him wide through a tight hole in the final furlong. He ran away to the wire from there. It was a stunning performance by rider and horse.

A victory on Saturday will instantly make Talamo the most famous jockey in America. Damning with faint praise? Maybe so. Triple Crown heroes come and go. It has been a long time since Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones's jockey in 2004) heard his name on SportsCenter (or read it in Sports Illustrated). Among the many touching story lines from recent horse seasons, only Barbaro's had life beyond summer and only for the most tragic of reasons. Ask a casual fan to name three horses and two will be Secretariat and Seabiscuit, both long dead. Ask them to name a jockey and most will say Cauthen, retired for a quarter century.

Talamo will not rescue his sport. But he could give it a blast of life. For the next five days -- or five weeks -- when America looks at him, Talamo can wink. Late yesterday after he climbed on the back of Sugar Baby Love in the ninth race, the first mount of his life at Churchill Downs, he won the race with a stretch drive and galloped back to the winner's circle wearing a sweet, toothy smile built on both innocence and belief.

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