Nakatani rides high after
overcoming tragedies

Oct 17, 2006 1:17 AM

Corey Nakatani knows what it is to hurt.

He’s had broken bones, concussions and surgery to remove a non-cancerous cyst from his throat during his 18 years as a jockey.

But they were a walk in the park compared to his emotional pain. He was introduced to racing at the age of 16 by his late father, Roy Nakatani, a Japanese-American born in a World War II internment camp in Colorado.

Decades later, a series of tragedies devastated his family within a two-year span. He lost a nephew to leukemia in the spring of 1995; his sister, Dawn, died of asphyxiation in an apparent homicide on the grounds of her apartment building in October of 1996; and his father died of a heart attack in the spring of 1997.

Yet Corey soldiered on to become one of America’s premier jockeys. He rides two streaking winners on Breeders’ Cup day at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4: Lava Man in the $5 million Classic and Aragorn in the $2 million Mile.

A while back, critics said the only resources lacking in Nakatani’s repertoire were patience and tact. His temperament didn’t match his talent. His disposition resembled Sonny’s in "The Godfather." But Nakatani has matured, to the point that just shy of his 36th birthday, on Oct. 21, he has his act together at last, and it’s a show-stopper.

He rides with the eye of the tiger. He doesn’t back down from anyone. Off the track, however, a sense calm prevails, whereas a short time ago, a lewd remark was as likely to fall from his lips in polite company as not. Good taste was not a priority. But that was yesterday. Today, life out of the saddle seems different. Call it peace of mind.

"So many things happened a few years ago, it was hard to deal with the tragedies that hit my family," Nakatani said. "I worked hard to keep them off my mind, but they kind of snowballed and clouded my thoughts. I had a lot of resentment for what happened to my family. But now I’m happy, I love to be at the track and glad to be riding. It shows when I go out there."

No more than when he rides horses like Lava Man and Aragorn. Nakatani has won seven straight on Lava Man, the California-bred gelding that has earned more money than any horse in history after being claimed—over $3.4 million. Trainer Doug O’Neill claimed the son of Slew City Slew for $50,000 on Aug. 13, 2004. His career earnings stand at $3,804,706, $2.7 million of which was earned this summer.

Aragorn has won three in a row under Nakatani and is given the best chance among American-based horses to win the Mile. But it is Lava Man that has captured the hearts of the West. His potential showdown against the imposing and regally-bred Bernardini is remindful of the 1938 match race between the West’s Seabiscuit and the East’s War Admiral, a significant difference being that Bernardini is a 3-year-old. Seabiscuit was five when he did the unthinkable and defeated the 4-year-old War Admiral. Nobody gave Seabiscuit a shot against War Admiral, America’s fourth Triple Crown winner, who was sired by the immortal Man o’ War.

Chances are you can get the same price on Lava Man against Bernardini in the Classic. Nakatani likes his odds.

"Lava Man is a pleasure to ride," Nakatani said. "The way he makes his moves, he reminds me of Affirmed or Cigar. I know Bernardini will have to pick his feet up to beat him. What makes Lava Man remarkable is he doesn’t have to be on the lead to win. He can track or he can take the race to you. I’m ecstatic to be riding him. I watched Bernardini win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and he was very impressive. It’s going to be fun leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, but we’re ready for him."

Ready physically and ready emotionally, because Corey Nakatani at last has his priorities in order.

"You have to overcome resentment and let it go," he said. "You have to enjoy life, because we’re not here that long."

The homestretch

Patrick Valenzuela’s attorney, Neil Papiano, tells this tale of the jockey as an emerging talent: "I represented Shoemaker for about 25 years. One day, Bill came to me and said, ”˜There’s a jockey I’ve just seen riding who will break all of my records.’ I said, ”˜Who?’ and he said, ”˜Valenzuela.’ I said, ”˜Milo Valenzuela?’ He said, ”˜Oh, hell, no. I’m talking about his nephew, Patrick Valenzuela.’ I said, ”˜Who the hell is he?’ and Shoe said, ”˜He’s the greatest rider I’ve ever seen in the saddle.’ Coming from Shoe, that was really something." Agent Bob Meldahl says if Valenzuela hadn’t missed so much riding time due to suspensions, he wouldn’t be threatening Laffit Pincay Jr.’s career record of 9,530 wins, "but he’d sure have around 7,000."

”¡ Lookalikes: Jim Edmonds and Burt Lancaster.

”¡ The thought that Tom Glavine might one day be considered for the Hall of Fame is all the more remarkable considering he has never thrown a ball over the plate.