A cold drizzle fell from darkened sky. It was early morning in Louisiana, and it looked as if the rain might turn violent and beat down like the hooves of a thoroughbred coming down the homestretch.
A 9-year-old boy was about to hop aboard a four-wheeler and ride to a neighbor's farm, where he would gallop horses and fantasize about life as a professional jockey.
His father stared at the ominous clouds. "You know,'' he said, "you don't have to do this.''
The boy looked at his father. "Man, this is what I'm going to do for a living,'' he said. "I've got to practice.''
Recounting that moment, the father chuckled during a recent interview and asked, "You ever have a 9-year-old tell you that?''
Now the boy is 17, driving a Mercedes c300 instead of the four-wheeler and riding horses on the competitive Southern California circuit rather than on his neighbor's farm. But he still wakes up well before dawn, and, eager as ever to ride horses even when it's raining, little Joe Talamo has taken the racing world by storm.
He's missing his senior year of high school while making history.
This year, he became the first apprentice jockey to win a riding title at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, the first apprentice jockey to win two Grade 1 stakes in a single day and the first apprentice jockey to ride two horses in the Breeders' Cup. Next month, he is expected to win the Eclipse Award given to the outstanding apprentice jockey by a margin as wide as Secretariat's victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
Yet he incessantly seeks advice from veteran jockeys, such as Mike Smith.
"I asked him what it'd take to get where he got,'' Talamo said. "He said hard work, perseverance and a little something extra.
"It was the little something extra that stuck with me.''
Seven days a week, Talamo shows up at the track by 5 a.m. to exercise horses for free and impress the trainers. Though he's taking correspondence courses online to get his GED, he studies the Daily Racing Forum and taped races as if he's studying for a Ph.D. in handicapping.
The routine is almost as impressive as the sight of Talamo on a horse. Drawing comparisons to Willie Shoemaker, he curls his 5-foot-1, 109-pound frame atop thoroughbreds and rides them with uncommon patience.
"You're looking at the next superstar,'' proclaimed former star Jerry Bailey earlier this year.
You're also looking at a 17-year-old. Lest one forget, Talamo says he plays video games and Monopoly with his girlfriend, and during a recent interview he playfully griped, "She always gets Boardwalk and Park Place, puts a hotel on them and bankrupts me.''
But last week, the tale of horse racing's newest sensation took an unexpected twist.
Talamo, who has won 249 races this year and endeared himself to the horse owners who have cashed in on more than $10.5 million in purse earnings, fired his agent – the same agent who had been by his side for most of the spectacular ride.
Talamo hoped the two could part ways without a fuss. Those hopes have died.
The split created a buzz in the racing industry, and the fired agent, Ronnie Ebanks, has fueled the controversy. He accused Talamo's family of interfering, accused Talamo of being jealous of the other rider Ebanks represents and characterized the firing as an impulsive act of betrayal.
"It's very disturbing and very upsetting,'' Ebanks said by phone last week. "Where he got with me in nine months, stop and think. What could he have gotten in the next nine months?''
More importantly, what awaits the phenom now?
The answer might lie in the road that got him here, a road began long before that cold and rainy morning in Louisiana when he was a 9-year-old boy.
He rode his first horse, a Shetland Pony, when he was 3. Graduated to quarter horses when he was 8. Started galloping thoroughbreds when he was 12. Then there was the family room couch.
Oh, that poor couch.
With that whip in hand, Talamo would park himself on the arm of the couch, watch replays of the races at the Fair Grounds and pretend he was aboard a 1,200-pound thoroughbred.
"I was hysterical because he was messing up my furniture with the whip, and this was nonstop,'' said Talamo's mother, Joy.
The boy's father, Joe Talamo Jr., was an assistant trainer, and little Joe tagged along on the weekends. He mucked the stalls, cleaned the sheds and groomed horses. No one would hand him the reins to a career as a professional jockey. He'd have to earn it.
By 16, little Joe had his jockey's license and was riding against jockeys more than twice his age. It took him 23 mounts at Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, La., before he won his first race. But the winner's circle soon took on a familiar feel.
He won 44 more races before the season at Louisiana Downs ended and, perhaps even more remarkable, persuaded his parents to let him drop out of school. They were dead set on his getting his high school degree.
"What if I find classes on the Internet?'' Talamo recalls asking his father.
"Maybe,'' his father replied, "but they don't have classes on the Internet.''
Talamo searched. He came back with a list of dozens of online services that offered correspondence classes. But winning his parents' permission took months of pleading and reasoned arguments.
"I felt like a lawyer,'' he said.
He found a convincing witness in Bill Hartack, who won the Kentucky Derby five times and was working as a steward at Louisiana Downs when Talamo showed up in June 2006. Hartack, almost as well known for his curmudgeonly disposition as his success, watched the young rider, deemed him a natural and approved him for a jockey's license.
"People joked that it was the first time Hartack had anything nice to say about someone,'' Talamo's father said.
The compliments began piling up as fast as the victories.
When the meet at Louisiana Downs ended, Talamo and the top jockeys headed for the Fair Grounds. He won the first race of the meet and never looked back, becoming the first apprentice to finish as leading rider at the track in New Orleans while his former classmates were finishing their junior year.
By then he'd caught the eye of Ebanks, a veteran agent who has handled some of the nation's top jockeys. Last spring, Ebanks flew to New Orleans from Southern California and wooed the kid with talk of how he could help guide Talamo to a Hall of Fame career.
Entranced by the plan, Talamo parted ways with his former agent and longtime family friend, Tony Martin, joined Ebanks and headed to Southern California. The young jockey moved in with his new agent, and under Ebanks' watch he rode against some of the nation's top jockeys. On July 7 at Hollywood Park, Talamo won two Grade 1 stakes.
It was no fluke. He won two more Grade 1 stakes later in the season. Ebanks had the hottest young jockey in the country – and then he added another rider to his stable.
In a surprise move, the agent agreed to represent Tyler Baze, who in 2000 won the Eclipse Award as the country's most outstanding apprentice jockey.
"Tyler had been a buddy of mine,'' Ebanks said. "Tyler was struggling and he needed help."
The former wunderkind had fallen on hard times, the pressure to fulfill his promise and an alcohol problem sidetracking his career. But now Baze was back, and under Ebanks' watch his career began to flourish.
Talamo began to brood.
Taken aback when Ebanks took on Baze, Talamo told friends and family members he'd try to make it work. He got mounts in the prestigious Breeders Cup and Japan Cup with Ebanks' help, and it looked as if the agent might pull off the rare daily double, representing two young jockeys angling for the same top horses.
But as Baze's fortunes rose, Talamo's business dropped.
The situation came to a head Dec. 16.
In the fourth race at Hollywood Park, Talamo was listed as the rider on a 5-to-2 shot and Baze was listed as the rider on a 12-to-1 shot. But Baze's horse was scratched before the race, and the public address announcer updated the crowd on a change in the program.
Baze would replace Talamo on the 5-to-2 shot, leaving Talamo without a mount.
A change of jockeys is considered acceptable in a stakes race. But in a race for low-level claimers, when the riders already are listed on the day's program, a change in jockeys is considered an affront. It's so rare, in fact, a trainer must meet with the stewards and typically argue his case over the objections of a jockey's agent.
But Ebanks had no objections.
That next day, the two sat down. Talamo reminded Ebanks of the talks they had in the spring of how the agent and jockey would work as a team on Talamo's way to the Hall of Fame. Back then, there was no mention of a second rider in the mix.
Talamo gave his agent an ultimatum: Drop Baze or their partnership was over.
"What I can do and can't do, my decisions are not made by the jockeys that I represent,'' Ebanks said. "I'm a 43-year-old grown man.''
"I feel sad for Ronnie Ebanks, and I feel more sad for Joe Talamo. I treated him like a son, in every aspect. – I did the best job I could for him, and I thought he was amazingly successful. I think I had something to do with that, but he didn't realize how much.''
Three days later, the verdict was clear. Talamo piled his clothes in the backseat of his Mercedes c300 – he would have no trouble making payments thanks to about $850,000 he made during his stint with Ebanks, who collected 25 percent – and moved out of the agent's house.
He also moved on, signing with Scotty McClellan, who represents Alex Solis, an accomplished veteran rider. That Talamo would sign with an agent representing an established jockey took some by surprise.
"He'll be riding in the back of the bus,'' said Lloyd Romero, a trainer in Louisiana.
Yet Solis, 43, is in the twilight of his career and rides almost exclusively for four trainers. He may be keeping the seat in the front of the bus warm for Talamo.
On Friday, when Talamo won the fourth race on a horse named Final Fling, a reporter for TVG greeted him on his way out of the winner's circle. She wanted more than a recap of the victory. She wanted to know why Talamo had fired Ebanks.
By then, the agent was roiling the waters with talk of jealousy and betrayal. This was a chance to set the record straight. This was a chance for trainers and owners to watch how Talamo responded to adversity. On live TV.
"It was just time to go our separate ways,'' the 17-year-old explained, and that's what he told other reporters, with the same winning disposition that has won over his fellow jockeys.
"I know it was hard on Joe,'' Ron Ellis, a longtime trainer and the father of Talamo's girlfriend, said of the split. "I talked to him about it, and my final words to him were, 'Joe, you're making an adult decision for the right reasons.'
"He's pretty mature and thinks things out, and he makes decisions after conferring with people that he believes are important to him. But he's nobody's puppet.''
The day after the TVG interview, the final day of the winter meet at Hollywood Park, Talamo was changing into street clothes after the last race. He was standing next to another young jockey, Tyler Baze.
The two riders who shared the same agent had lockers side by side.
Maybe they could get together and go fishing, Talamo suggested amiably, and they chatted like friends rather than rivals. They'd see each other later in the week when the Southern California circuit resumed at Santa Anita. But the day after Hollywood Park's season ended, Talamo didn't expect to see a single jockey.
He was headed back to Louisiana to visit his family during a Christmas crawfish boil. But the kid who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day booked his plane ticket for 10 a.m. That gave him time to make a scheduled stop.
Some of the trainers still would be at Hollywood Park with horses to exercise. Little Joe Talamo would be there, too, eager to gallop the horses, rain or shine.