August 8, 2022

Nakatani highlight reel: 10 Breeders’ Cup wins, Lava Man, Serena’s Song, and more

Corey Nakatani will be feted at Del Mar on Saturday (Coady Photography)

In honor of jockey Corey Nakatani’s retirement announcement, we’ve selected replays of just some marquee victories over his three-decade career. Our virtual walk down memory lane also helps to look forward to the more formal tribute that Del Mar will offer on Saturday.

The Southern California native won a total of 10 Breeders’ Cup events, and you can relive them in chronological order thanks to a YouTube video posted by his son and agent, Matt.

The sequence begins with Lit de Justice’s last to first score in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) at Woodbine, followed in quick succession by Jewel Princess in the Distaff (G1). Nakatani went on to win the next two runnings of the Sprint as well. At old Hollywood Park in 1997, Elmhurst’s come-from-the clouds upset in the Sprint was shades of Lit de Justice, especially since he represented the same connections, Evergreen Farm and trainer Jenine Sahadi. In 1998 at Churchill Downs, Reraise employed the opposite tactic by dictating on the front end

Nakatani earned his first Breeders’ Cup win on turf in the 1999 Mile (G1) at Gulfstream Park, where he lifted Silic across the line in the nick of time. He rode another Julio Canani trainee, Sweet Catomine, to a tour de force in the 2004 Juvenile Fillies (G1) despite having to slam the brakes on the far turn at Lone Star Park. Nakatani racked up his fourth Sprint courtesy of Thor’s Echo at Churchill in 2006. Five years later at the same venue, he turned a double for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen with My Miss Aurelia in the Juvenile Fillies and Regally Ready in the Turf Sprint (G1). His final Breeders’ Cup win came at Santa Anita in 2012 aboard Asmussen’s Tapizar in the Dirt Mile (G1).

Among his numerous other high-profile mounts are Hall of Famers Lava Man and Serena’s Song.

“Lava Man is one of my favorite horses I ever rode,” Nakatani told Del Mar publicity Sunday. “I was fortunate enough to get on him and we were a match made in heaven.”

Nakatani was at the helm for seven of Lava Man’s graded wins, highlighted by his historic sweep of the 2006 Santa Anita H. (G1), Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), and Pacific Classic (G1). His closest call came in the Gold Cup when he stumbled badly at the start. Nakatani patiently helped Lava Man to regroup and got him in position to overcome.

Nakatani was the regular rider for Serena’s Song earlier in her career. During her championship campaign in 1995, her victories for Nakatani included the Turfway prep then known as the Jim Beam (G2) over the boys.

Nakatani won the Kentucky Oaks (G1) twice for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. The first came in a 10-length rout by 4-5 favorite Lite Light in 1991.

In 1996, he willed the 9-1 Pike Place Dancer to a neck decision over Escena.

Another outstanding filly partner was Sharp Cat, who put on an exhibition in the 1998 Beldame (G1) in her finale.

Nakatani put his considerable turf skills in the service of divisional champions Possibly Perfect and Wandesta. The former wrapped up her Eclipse in the 1995 Beverly D. (G1), while Wandesta clinched hers in the 1996 Matriarch (G1).

Although Brazilian champ Sandpit didn’t land a statuette stateside, he scored seven graded wins, all with “C Nak” in the saddle. Here is his repeat in the lucrative Caesars International H. (G1) in 1996:

In recent years, Nakatani’s most naturally gifted mount was Shared Belief. The Hollendorfer pupil romped in the 2013 CashCall Futurity (G1) to secure champion two-year-old male honors late in the season, and Nakatani did his part by coolly timing his move.

His last major dirt winner was Bolt d’Oro, hero of the 2017 Del Mar Futurity (G1) and Front Runner (G1).

Fittingly, Nakatani’s final Grade 1 coup showcased his prowess on turf. Bowies Hero prevailed in the 2018 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) in a race that was very much a tale of trips.

Unfortunately, Nakatani suffered serious injuries in a spill at Del Mar last summer. After being sidelined for the past 15 months, the 49-year-old made his retirement from the saddle official in a Saturday press release:

“The time has come. Although I never imagined this was how my career would end, I am very proud of my accomplishments and know that I competed at the very highest of levels, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. This game gave a young kid from Covina a purpose in life and I will forever be grateful for the opportunities it has given me. Without these amazing horses, I never would have considered my family and myself so blessed.

“I want to extend profound thanks to the many I worked with over the years – all of the owners, trainers, and so many other people that all helped me along in my tremendous career.

“I also want to thank the fans. My fans were truly the best and I continue to hear and receive support, even now. It wouldn’t have been the same without you all. THANK YOU!”

Nakatani’s mounts amassed more than $234 million in earnings, ranking him 12th on the all-time North American list according to Equibase. He scored 3,909 wins, 341 of them in graded stakes, with 120 Grade 1s among them. Nakatani recorded 23,740 rides, and his horses finished in the money at a 45 percent clip.

Also spotted on the international scene, Nakatani won in England, Japan, and Dubai, where he steered Caller One to the first of his two Golden Shaheen (G1) victories at old Nad al Sheba in 2001. He came within an ace of surprising the 2002 Japan Cup (G1), held that year at Nakayama, aboard his familiar Sarafan.

Closer to home, Nakatani collected 10 riding titles on the Southern California circuit. At Del Mar, only Hall of Famer Chris McCarron won more stakes (134) than Nakatani (108).

“My first riding title was at Del Mar (1994) and I have many memories of the support I received and the things I achieved there,” Nakatani told track publicity. “Mr. (CEO Joe) Harper was amazing for the riders …I was fortunate to be, as a young kid, in the room with great, Hall of Fame riders, that I could learn from and being around them made me better.

“Del Mar will always have a special place in my heart. It was like a second home to me.”

That second home will pay tribute to Nakatani in a winner’s circle ceremony on Saturday.