For Talamo, first Kentucky Derby could be toughest

Apr 14, 2009 5:08 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Jus’ live the day. Don’ worry yaself – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

Good advice, even today, especially for a rookie about to ride in the world’s most famous horse race for the first time. That’s what awaits teenage sensation Joe Talamo, the Louisiana lad who will ride possible favorite I Want Revenge in the 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2.

Samuel Johnson described youth as "towering in the confidence of twenty-one," but Talamo does that adage two years better, since he is only 19.

He would be the third-youngest jockey to win the Run for the Roses, and the youngest in over a century. Alonzo Clayton was 15 when he rode Azra to a nose victory against only two rivals in 1892, and James (Soup) Perkins was 15 when he guided Halma to a five-length triumph against three foes in1895.

Talamo will have no such cakewalk. Even though I Want Revenge proved himself battle-tested when he survived a treacherous trip to win the Wood Memorial, if he captures the Derby to achieve his place in racing history, he will have to vanquish 19 horses and jockeys willing to do anything short of what Don Meade on Brokers Tip and Herb Fisher on Head Play did in their duel in the stretch run of the1933 Derby.

And, unless he has nerves of steel, he will have to overcome and subdue the media hordes and their frenzied queries to any number of inane questions, such as, "What kind of eggs did you have for breakfast, what brand of catsup did you use and did you get any on your shirt?" And that’s before the race. Once the horses take the track and parade to the post, young Joe will have to put his emotions on hold during the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home." The traditional tune has gotten to more than one jock.

"It’s an overwhelming feeling," said 45-year-old Panamanian Alex Solis, winless in 15 Derby rides, who lost his best chance this year when The Pamplemousse suffered a tendon injury before the Santa Anita Derby. "It gives you goose bumps. I was 18 when I rode in my first Derby (in 1983), and I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t understand what they were singing when they played ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ but I still got chills. It’s the most incredible feeling, and very special."

His advice to Joe? "All you can do is relax and let the horse do his thing."

David Flores never won the Derby either, but he was third in 1997 on Free House, his first of nine Derby mounts. He did his homework before the race, to no avail.

"I talked to a few older riders the first time I went, and they said to ride like it’s any other race," said Flores, a Tijuana native who is 41. "They said not to put pressure on yourself, but that’s hard not to do, once you’re there. Free House was a live horse (at 10-1) and had a good shot, but it was a tough race.

"The whole week in Louisville is exciting, especially knowing you have a legitimate chance to win. You get chills before the race, but once you’re on the track and in the post parade, everything changes. You’re more relaxed. It’s just like any other race. The difference is, there are 20 horses and 100,000 people. You have to ride like you do every day. As soon as you get in the gate, you feel better. That’s when Joe will do what he needs to do. He’s a good rider and has a great horse. He has to feel comfortable and confident. He’s capable and he’s got the ability."

Just like Victor Espinoza when he rode his first Derby in 2001. "I had a good horse in Congaree," the 36-year-old native of Mexico City said. "I was in the same position that Joe’s in now. I had won the Wood with Congaree, and he was 7-1 in the Derby. I felt more pressure because it was my first Derby, and I knew I had a good horse. I probably would have been more relaxed being on a longshot.

"Looking back, I had no clue. I was going into the race blind. The crowd is amazing. Everybody’s going crazy. You have to be there to get the full sensation, because it’s a tremendous experience. It’s very hard to give advice to someone riding in the race the first time.

"But the next year, I won the Derby with a 20-1 shot, War Emblem. Having gone through the first Derby made things easier. It was like any other race. But the first one was tough."

Talamo is aware. "I don’t know what to expect," he said. "This is the Super Bowl of horse racing. It’s the race we all want to win, of course. I’m just going to ride it like any other race. Hopefully, he’ll break good, get in a good spot and I’ll ride it like any other race.

"The prestige is second to none. I know it’s going to be exciting. I’ve only been there one time, in 2005, when Giacomo won, and that was as a spectator. It will be a lot better being there as a rider. As a kid, I watched every Derby and wanted to be there, wanting to ride. But I never thought I’d get there at this age."

The homestretch:

• Don’t sweat Quality Road’s quarter crack. It’s on his (right) hind foot, and not nearly as serious as it would be on a front foot.

• My Derby Fab Four: Quality Road, Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge and Friesan Fire.

• Many jockeys have won the Derby on their first mount, the most recent being Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones in 2004.

• Advice to Joe Talamo from fellow Cajun Eddie Delahoussaye, one of only four riders to win the Derby back-to-back: "Just ride like you did in the Wood, and you’ll be fine."