Joe Talamo, the 20-year-old star of the Animal Planet reality series Jockeys, was supposed to get his first stab at the Kentucky Derby in 2009, but he lost his ride on the morning of the race when the favorite, I Want Revenge, woke up with a tender left front ankle. On May 1st, the Marrero, Louisiana, native returns to Churchill Downs aboard 6-to-1 shot Sidney's Candy. Before mounting up, he talked with Details about clothes shopping for the height-challenged, jockey groupies, and why he'll sing Frank Sinatra in the winner's circle.
Details: Most people underestimate the rigors of a jockey's life. I mean, you work from 5 am. til 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night. You can't eat anything 'cause you're always battling weight. You're completely at the whim of some 1,200-pound animal. And the sport is incredibly dangerous—horses collide, guys break their necks all the time. So why do you do it?
Joe Talamo: That adrenaline. The excitement. What you feel when you win a race. That's how jockeys are. They ride til either they're too old or they're injured. They want to feel that last win.
Details: There's also no contract when you turn professional. No signing bonus. You're starting for a wage of—what—like, $35 a mount?
Joe Talamo: Yeah. You can make anywhere from $100 to $100,000 a week. No contract. The way we get paid, we pretty much have to win to make anything.
Talamo was a natural from early childhood.
Details: I read somewhere that you actually started out riding a couch. How did that work?
Joe Talamo: When I was a little kid, 4 or 5, I'd bust my mom's couch. I used to get whippings for it, but now I can buy her a couple of them, so she's not that mad.
Details: Did you saddle up or just ride on top?
Joe Talamo: Just sat on the arm rest and hit it with a whip that the jockey Robby Albarado gave me. He's from Lafayette, Louisiana, about 2 hours northwest of where I grew up.
Details: You got a taste of Derby Day at Churchill Downs last year, but your horse—the favorite of the time—was scratched on the morning of the race, right?
Joe Talamo: Yeah.
Details: I know that was devastating for you, but did it give you some idea of what to expect on Saturday?
Joe Talamo: Ummmm. Yeah. You don't have a derby horse til it goes in the gate. [Laughs.] That's how horseracing is, you know? Anything can happen.
Details: Your girlfriend, Elizabeth, is the daughter of trainer Ron Ellis? That's kind of like dating the boss's daughter, isn't it? I mean you screw up just once, he puts the word out, and bang, you never get another mount.
Joe Talamo: Well I don't ride for him anyway, so it doesn't matter. [Laughs.]
Details: I figured as much. But it is sort of a small racing community.
Joe Talamo: Yes and no. Everybody kind of talks about everyone, but that's one thing about me, I kind of leave my personal life off the race track. So it's hard for them to say much.
Details: I'm curious about the off-the-track stuff. I heard that you used to shop for clothes in the boys' department of department stores to save money.
Joe Talamo: Oh yeah.
Details: I hope you don't have to do that anymore.
Joe Talamo: Uh, I still do, I'm pretty tight. [Laughs.]
Details: You live near Santa Anita Park. Where does someone who is 5'3", 105 pounds shop in L.A.?
Joe Talamo: I'll be honest, I don't really like to shop too much. I'll go out one day and buy 20 pairs of jeans, 20 shirts, stuff like that. I went to Hong Kong in December and loaded up on a bunch of real nice shirts and suits. I should be set for quite a while.
Details: Is there a tailor in L.A who specializes in designing clothes for jockeys?
Joe Talamo: Yeah, Jimmy Au. He specializes in guys 5'8" and under.
Details: Have you been to visit him?
Joe Talamo: Oh yeah, I've been there a few times. He specializes in suits and dress clothes.
Details: I'm assuming since it's L.A., you travel with an entourage. Who's in your entourage? Conan? Kobe? Leo?
Joe Talamo: [Laughs.] Yeah, all of the above.
Details: Do you get to go out much at night?
Joe Talamo: Uhhh a little bit. You know, if I win a big race or something, I go out with the owners or maybe my girlfriend. Once a week or something like that, I'll go out to dinner. But I'm kind of laid-back, I like to cook dinner at home, watch TV, hang out.
Details: I know that the L.A. Lakers have groupies. Do jockeys have groupies?
Joe Talamo: Oh yeah. They have plenty. They seem to come out the woodwork.
Details: It seems like everybody in the country's playing ping pong these days. It's a big craze. I know that ping pong tables have been a fixture in the jockey room for a long time. Are you good at that sport?
Joe Talamo: I'm absolutely horrible.
Details: You are?
Joe Talamo: I'm big on pool. And I love golf. It's really challenging.
Details: I'd like to talk a little bit about your better half, Sidney's Candy. What's he like off the track? Does he have a special character to him?
Joe Talamo: A little bit. He handles himself well, you know. For a 3-year-old horse, he acts like he's 4 or 5. He's so fun to ride, he makes the job real easy. That's why I love him.
Details: How much time do you spend with him?
Joe Talamo: I really try not to go over to the barn too much. 'Cause his groomer takes care of him, and obviously trainer John Sadler does, too. I don't like to interfere too much.
Talamo in action
Details: People are making a big deal out of the fact that you drew the Number 20 post in the starting gate. Is that something that concerns you? Are they making too much of it?
Joe Talamo: For Sidney's Candy, I think it's a good thing 'cause he's all the way outside, he's the last horse to load. Big Brown won from that post a couple years ago, so I can't see it being a problem.
Details: Word has it that you're a Sinatra fan. Is that right?
Joe Talamo: Oh, yeah.
Details: How'd you come to that?
Joe Talamo: I don't know. I always did kind of like oldies. My parents and all, they always did listen to him, so I took a liking to him.
Details: You know, they play "New York, New York" every year at the Belmont, the last race in the Triple Crown. Have you allowed yourself to go there yet, to fantasize about sweeping all three races?
Joe Talamo: Oh, for sure. If I get to ride in the Belmont, I'll be singing along with him.
The Kentucky Derby airs 4-7pm ET on May 1, 2010 on NBC.