On that overcast day in early April of 2009, Joe Talamo was on the crowd’s betting choice, I Want Revenge, a dark bay colt coming out of the two slot in the eight-horse field. But when the doors of the starting gate clanged open, the three-year-old broke awkwardly in the air, his front legs almost two feet off the ground like some frantic Tim Burton rocking horse.And just like that, the track announcer groaned, “Ohhh! I Want Revenge, heavily favored, broke last in the field. He was absolutely flat-footed at the break, and he is left at the back of the pack.” Then in a calmer tone added, “Interesting start to the Wood Memorial.”A lot of jocks, even seasoned journeymen, would have panicked, using their horse up early to regain the five lengths they had just lost in the 1 1/8-mile, $750,000 race. But Talamo tucked I Want Revenge along the rail in last place, allowing him to get into a comfortable unhurried stride after the horrendous start.It was only in the backstretch, a half-mile from the finish line, that the young rider urged his mount to move past a couple stragglers. They were in fifth place, cruising along evenly in the tightly-bunched field. On the turn for home, they moved again, now only three lengths from the lead. But the situation still looked hopeless, with three horses directly in front blocking their way and a horse on either side, keeping them boxed in.Trying to maneuver to the inside, Talamo and his horse briefly bumped Atomic Rain, the horse along the rail. He had to steady I Want Revenge, but quickly pointed him out towards an opening, yet still-tight hole. And with a vicious hand-ride, which reminded old-timers in the grandstand of the great Johnny Longden — nicknamed “The Pumper” for his daring athletic riding style — they split the two leaders, going on to hit the wire 1 1/2 lengths ahead of them.The young rider stood up in the irons, looked over at the clubhouse patrons and raised his whip with his right hand.Later an Associated Press writer would call it a “cool ride” from a rising California star. The New York Times scribe wrote it was the “chilly patience” of the jockey who did not panic and rush the colt after the field that resulted in victory. I Want Revenge’s trainer, Jeff Mullin, said of his horse and rider, “When you miss the break, then get bottled up behind horses and overcome that, it’s pretty special.”And a beaming Talamo observed, “It’s phenomenal! I’ve never been in this spot before … it’s like a fairy tale.”‘Getting it done’Joe Talamo — who often attends the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Rita Church in Sierra Madre with his girlfriend Elizabeth Ellis, daughter of local trainer Ron Ellis — says the tale actually started growing up around quarter horses. His family lived in a subdivision 10 miles from New Orleans, but always had horses in their big backyard. When he was just six months old wearing a diaper, his dad, also named Joe like his father, put him up on a horse.He learned to ride on a western saddle, but can remember his Italian father dragging out a small English saddle with no horn for him to try at about age seven. “It’s so ironic,” explains the jockey today with a boyish grin. “After I rode in it, I remember telling him that I never want to ride in this thing, ever. And, I mean, that’s what I do for a living now. So figure that.”A year later, his dad took him to the Fair Grounds Racetrack in New Orleans. The two walked right down to the rail near the starting gate for a mile race. “And, man, when they broke out of the gate and went around, I could feel it,” he recalls. “And I told him, ‘I’m going to do that when I grow up.’ And my dad kind of laughed it off. But right then and there, that’s what I knew I wanted to do. And to be honest, from that day I was just dedicated and focused to get it done.”Joe Jr. owned and operated an air conditioning business, but he also took out a trainer’s license in the ’70s. And when business was slow during the fall and winter, he worked as an assistant trainer under Connie Tassistro at the Fair Grounds, with his son in tow on weekends. One day hometown leading rider Robbie Albarado gave the precocious kid a whip. Little Joe would straddle a saddle over a bale of hay and practice with that whip, twirling it and switching it from hand to hand just like the jocks do in a real race.“When I tried practice riding on my mom’s couch and busted it a few times, I got my butt busted, too,” he says, with a guilty half-smile. At age 11, Talamo got on his first Thoroughbred at a nearby training center. And a year later, he started jogging horses at a half-mile track owned by the former head of Halliburton before Dick Chaney. Every afternoon after he got out of St. Rosalie Catholic School, which he attended from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, his father would pick him up and bring him to the half-mile track, where he would muck (clean out) stalls, do other chores and eventually get on horses. “I only made 40 bucks a week, but I’d have paid that to do it,” he notes. “I mean, it was a blast.”‘Everything clicked’Like Louisiana hall-of-fame Cajun jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye and Kent Desormeaux before him, Talamo won his first race at an unsanctioned bush track called The Quarter Pole. The turns were tight, and they only raced there every other Sunday. “But that’s what’s good about it. You know, you learn so many different things and nobody really knows,” he points out. “That was a thrill out of this world — just the fact you were competing, going that fast and the way you have to think and do so many things.”Things were going so good, in fact, that the 16-year-old dropped out of Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero after his sophomore year. He says somehow he convinced his parents, Joe, Jr. and Joy, into letting him be home-schooled so he could really concentrate on becoming a professional race rider.And that late spring, May 2006, he started riding at Louisiana Downs up in Lafayette. He describes it as “unbelievable” when a few weeks later he won his first recognized race for Connie Tassistro, his father’s racetrack boss, on a horse named For Heaven’s Sake. “I mean,” he exclaims, “go figure that. But I didn’t know a thing. Just riding and having a good time.”Next came the Fair Grounds meet when everything clicked. He was the first apprentice to win the riding title with 119 wins, 25 more than his boyhood hero, Robbie Albarado. When asked what accounted for his rapid development as a par excellence jockey, he takes a moment.“What was the big thing, really, was I worked so hard,” Talamo explains, without sounding like he’s bragging. “I mean, still to this day that’s what’s been keeping me going so much is just working every day. I was getting out of bed at 4:30, five o’clock and going to the track, and a lot of guys weren’t. You know, a lot of it’s politics — just seeing everybody, shaking hands. And I had a great agent at the time.“After the Fair Grounds, I was kind of at a crossroads,” he reports. “I could have gone back to Louisiana Downs where I started, or I could have gone to New York or California. And it was basically, ‘Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond and stay in Louisiana or be a little fish in a big pond?’ But I was so optimistic, I said I wanted to be a big fish in a big pond.” With a chuckle, he shakes his head. “Things were happening so fast it’s hard to decipher. I mean, I was having so much fun, you know, like you’re in Vegas: just let it roll.”The then-17-year-old jockey decided on New York, but first made a pit stop in Southern California to ride for the late hall-of-fame trainer Bobby Frankel at Santa Anita. He did well, winning half-a-dozen races in four days, before heading for the Big Apple. But when he got there in early April, it was still snowing and raining, while back in L.A. it had been sunny and 85 degrees. So he packed his bags again and headed for the West Coast, which has been his base ever since. He continued winning races, even on the big circuit, including two Grade 1 races at Inglewood’s Hollywood Park in the same day. And at the end of 2007, he won the prestigious Eclipse Award as the nation’s best apprentice rider, his mounts earning more than $6 million. The following year he finished second at both Hollywood and Del Mar. And the streak has continued, with him winning the Cinderella Stakes and the Grade 1 $250,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap on June 11 at Hollywood Park. Twenty percent of his mounts so far have been winners at the meet, putting him in contention to take the riding title.‘Wasn’t meant to be’Joe Talamo’s spectacular rise to near the top of the super competitive Southern California jockeys’ colony has had only one setback — a tremendous disappointment, actually, that would have likely played heavily on any rider’s psyche. On the first Saturday in May he was scheduled to ride the favorite in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. But the morning of America’s most famous race, I Want Revenge, the Wood Memorial winner, was scratched with a bum left front ankle. Like every professional jockey, he had dreamed as a boy of someday hitting the wire first at Churchill Downs. At the barn that dark morning, he went over to I Want Revenge’s stall to pet his almost-Derby mount as photographers snapped the poignant picture. Later that day, as he made his way down the fenced-in sidewalk to Churchill’s jockey room, hardcore (and often cynical) racing fans cheered and shouted out words of encouragement as he walked by.“This just wasn’t meant to be,” he stoically told a reporter. “I mean, it’s hard to think positive during a negative situation. This just wasn’t the time. Sometimes you get knocked down and, you know, only the strong survive. You keep your head up and, hopefully, you’ll get back one day.”It didn’t take long, in fact, for Talamo to recover his positive-plus, happy-go-lucky demeanor. About the only horse ever to be scratched the morning of the Kentucky Derby, he says he’d had such awesome early years that his luck was bound to run out some time. And a big part of his good fortune was only getting hurt once since he started riding, when he broke his left wrist after being unseated during the running of a race August 5, 2010, at Del Mar. Still, the 21-year-old — who was featured on Animal Planet’s reality show “Jockeys” — knows it’s not a question of if he gets hurt riding 1200-pound racehorses going 40 miles an hour around an oval, but when. He doesn’t know a single veteran jockey who has not gotten seriously banged up at least five times in his career. He reluctantly brings up the names of Ron Turcotte, Rene Douglas and Michael Martinez, modern-day jockeys who have been paralyzed from terrible racing accidents. “I just can’t imagine somebody not being able to walk,” he laments out loud. “I can’t imagine that. But that could happen to any of us, any day. But you don’t think about it, ’cause you wouldn’t be able to make the decisions you’d make. Like sometimes I’ll point my horse and go through a hole that really I can’t fit through. But you just go through instinct, ’cause you know that other horse might drift out a bit. But if he comes back down, you might clip heels and go over. “And for me, I feel whether it’s my faith or whatever, everything happens for a reason. You know, I broke my wrist — that happened for a reason. I think that’s how you’ve got to look at things. You’ve just got to be positive about everything. ’Cause something is going to happen, whether it’s an injury or whatever.”Then Joe Talamo talks about a sacred routine he has followed ever since he got up on a racehorse. “Before I walk out of the jocks’ room, when I put on my helmet, I like kiss up to the sky,” he confides matter of factly. “And that’s just like ‘Watch over us.’ And right before I go in the gate, I usually make the sign of the cross with my whip, and I’ll just say, ‘God, protect us all.’ Not just me but everyone, because we’re all in it together. “I’ve been doing that since the first horse I’ve ever ridden at Louisiana Downs,” he says. “And I don’t think once or twice about it. I just do it.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0701/olajockey/{/gallery}