The Sport of Kings

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Corey Nakatani rides Pulsion at the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. in mid-April. (Photos courtesy of Shig Kikkawa/Rafu contributor)

By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor

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This weekend is all about one monumental sporting event—the Kentucky Derby. As trainers and jockeys prepare their horses for the 1 1/4–mile stretch of Churchill Downs, the excitement and glamour that was once associated with the most prestigious horse race in the world has dimmed considerably.

The Sport of Kings, more commonly known as thoroughbred racing, has been in decline for some time now. Besides issues like drug usage, animal cruelty, top horses being prematurely retired and the fact that there has been no Triple Crown winner since 1978, the sport has simply not caught on with the youth of today despite its best efforts.

In a world where scores and stats are uploaded instantly to one’s cell phone and six games can be watched simultaneously through one’s television, waiting 20 minutes in between races that last under two while investing an entire day at the track just isn’t appealing to the “now generation.”

And while betting used to be one of the main allures of horse racing, sports fans in need of a gambling fix can turn to the suddenly pop culture friendly escape of poker, both online and in the casinos, as well as the multi-billion dollar fantasy sports industry that satisfies the football, baseball and basketball fanatics out there.

Still, there are those who have hope for horse racing’s future.

“It’s a great sport,” veteran jockey Corey Nakatani told the Rafu Shimpo in a recent interview. “It’s gone through depressions before. I know it will still survive. It’s a sport that will always survive.”

The main problem, according to Nakatani, has to do with the disconnect between the ruling entities and the people who are day-in and day-out involved with the horses, the tracks, the racing. This discrepancy is perfectly exemplified in the institution of synthetic tracks throughout the state of California.

“Everywhere around the country you’re seeing smaller field sizes,” Nakatani said. “The barns are empty. A lot of people don’t want to run on that stuff.”

Graduating from jockey school in California, Nakatani began his riding career at Caliente in Mexico in the fall of 1988, winning his first race before moving back to Southern California in April 1989. He’s spent the last 20 years of his career in California, where he was born and raised in Covina.

This January, feeling so passionately about synthetic turf, he packed up his stuff, bought a house in Kentucky, and moved his family there to continue his career on dirt with the hope of getting another shot to ride in the Kentucky Derby this weekend.

Despite over 3,000 victories, including the Kentucky Oaks twice, the Canadian International Stakes, the Strub Stakes four times, the Dubai Golden Shaheen, and seven Breeders’ Cups, three of which were won consecutively between 1996 and 1998, in 13 tries, Nakatani has yet to take the Derby.

Unfortunately, at Wednesday’s draw, Nakatani did not receive a mount, so his hope to win the only race that has eluded him thus far, will have to wait at least one more year. From talking to him, one gets the impression that the 39-year-old father of four has no desire to let up on the reigns.

Nakatani has over 3,000 career victories.

“I just like running races,” he said. “I’m very competitive. I’m athletic. I just love being able to ride horses. The adrenaline rush that you get all the time. Seeing the horse keep moving forward. That’s the whole thing, when you’ve got a love for something, it makes it easy.”

Nakatani discovered that love when he was 16. A champion high school wrestler, Nakatani suffered a broken nose and needed to go to the hospital. As fate would have it, the hospital he went to was located near the Santa Anita Racetrack, the very same place where his father had spent time interned over 40 years before.

“They checked my nose and everything, and my dad and I went over to the track and I thought, “Man, I could do that,’” Nakatani said. “We asked around and we’re able to speak to Jack Van Berg. He was one of the first guys I used to talk to. He told me I needed to go to the farm and learn how to do it, get on them. So that’s what I ended up doing.” There have been extreme lows and highs to his career.

The two-year period during which time his nephew died of leukemia, his sister Dawn was murdered and his father Roy suffered a fatal heart attack, an unimaginable low from which few people find their way back.

Of course, riding Lava Man to all those winner’s circle was a high few people have ever achieved.

And while there’s been plenty of winning, there has also been a lingering characterization of him as racing’s “bad boy” thanks to his altercation with fellow rider Iggy Puglisi, his appearance before the stewards for some overly aggressive riding, and just the general consensus of a lot of riders who have not appreciated his attitude. His participation in last season’s “Jockey’s” on Animal Planet, only reinforced this image.

But through it all, his desire to bounce back from injury and push beyond controversy has endeared him to fans of the sport. After all, there’s a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance, especially from habitual winners, just ask Kobe Bryant.

Nakatani, while still wholly dedicated to his sport, has other things that occupy his time that have perhaps even softened him up a little bit. Last year, he and his wife

Lisa decided to have a baby, Lilah Marie, who is now 15-months-old.

“She’s very active, plays a lot,” he said. “Rides her bike already, gives Elmo a ride. Rides the little horse we got her. It’s a lot of fun. She’s definitely athletic. She’s got no fear.

“I enjoy it. When I was younger, I didn’t have the time to spend with the little ones like I do now. I try to spend as much time with the kids as I can. Try to help them, guide them in the right direction. Just enjoy life.”

While Lilah might yet be a horse racer, Nakatani’s other four children, Brittany, Matthew, Austin and his stepdaughter Taylor won’t be.

Nakatani wins the 8th race on Quiet Thanks. (Courtesy of Shig Kikkawa/Rafu contributor)

“No, they’re too big,” Nakatani said. “No future horse racers. They might do something in the business, but whatever direction that they would like to choose, I just try to support it and give them all the encouragement and stuff you can do to guide them.”

In fact, Matthew is contemplating a scholarship to Cincinnati as a kicker and is holding out hopes that he might get into Louisville.

With a new home, and perhaps a new outlook, Nakatani is ready to do what he does best—win.

“After all these years, riding with a bunch of hall of famers like Laffit [Pincay Jr.] and Gary Stevens, [Chris] McCarron, Eddie D [Delahoussaye], I learned a lot from riding from those guys. But when you first start riding you’re just out there to prove yourself.”

After 20 years of riding, Nakatani is out to prove himself once again.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past where I’ve done things wrong,” he said. “I’m older and wiser and more mature now. Now, I just want to get out there and do the best I can do, put them in a spot to win and hopefully I can get a lot of opportunities from the trainers and owners and get back on top. That’s my goal. To get back on top.”

Which would then make him king of the Sport of Kings.

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