Updated on 09/16/2011 7:27AM

After spill, regaining balance

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Under normal circumstances, Corey Nakatani would be looking forward to a big holiday card at Hollywood Park on Monday with Special Ring in the $500,000 Shoemaker Mile and Voodoo Dancer in the $500,000 Gamely Handicap.

But nothing has been particularly normal in the life of the 31-year-old jockey since the afternoon of May 2. That's the day Nakatani made it barely an eighth of a mile into the third race, a maiden claimer for 2-year-olds, before being drilled into the ground from atop a stumbling Whirlwind Trip.

The horse can be forgiven. Whirlwind Trip clipped the heels of Star Nine, under Tyler Baze, who had crossed over from an outside post to take the lead. Whirlwind Trip kept his feet. Star Nine went on to win. But he was disqualified, and Baze got five days.

All of that was small consolation to Nakatani. He spent the next week in bed, his head swimming from a serious concussion and aching from a compression fracture to the C6 vertebra at the base of his neck. This is not to be confused with the colorfully named hangman's fracture, which involves the C2 and C3 vertebrae and is more often associated with cattle rustling than race riding.

For those who have been lucky enough to avoid familiarity with such trauma, a concussion occurs when the soft brain is bounced violently against the rigid bone of the skull. Blood vessels are torn and twisted, resulting in an interruption of the normal flow of messages in the brain. Nakatani suffered a Grade 2 concussion on a scale of one to three, which means he did not lose consciousness, but don't ask him to remember what happened.

Compression fractures, or vertebral crush fractures, are more commonly found in the lower backs of the elderly as a symptom of osteoporosis, a gradual degeneration of the spine that can be blamed on such things as gravity, diet, and painful but stylish footwear. On the other hand, it requires a tremendous amount of force for a relatively young, highly conditioned athlete such as Nakatani to sustain a cervical compression fracture.

That is precisely what happened. When Whirlwind Trip got his front feet tangled with Star Nine's back feet, he lurched down and to the right. Nakatani was flung out of the saddle and spun 180 degrees in one swift motion while hanging on to the right-hand rein. He landed hard on his feet, facing back toward the starting gate, then pitched over backwards with a slingshot effect that whiplashed his head and bounced the back of his skull on the ground.

The neck fracture probably occurred upon his initial feet-first impact with the ground. The concussion is consistent with what happened afterward.

"All I can remember is feeling like my head was split open," Nakatani said Friday evening from his home in Bradbury, the horsey enclave east of Santa Anita Park. "I've never had a concussion like this. It's all new territory for me. If I had a choice, I'd rather break a bone."

Few things make a jockey feel more vulnerable than a corruption of equilibrium. Strength, timing, and reflex are all important. But balance may be a rider's greatest asset. The ability to stay consistently centered on an unpredictable Thoroughbred moving at more than 35 m.p.h. makes the difference between winning and losing, life and death.

Nakatani has been down before. A broken ankle in 1994, a fractured collarbone during the summer of 2000 - the usual catalog of healthy body parts traded in pursuit of a career.

So far, he has been able to justify the carnage. In just 13 years of riding, through the end of 2001, his mount earnings had already topped $124 million. That included five Breeders' Cup victories, seven Southern California riding titles, a Santa Anita Handicap, and the 2001 Dubai Golden Shaheen aboard Caller One.

An ill-advised squabble over a ruling last fall by Hong Kong stewards left Nakatani with a chunk of days to serve back home. Then he had a poor Santa Anita meet, at least by his standards, with 24 wins from 219 rides. The events of May 2 only added injury to the insult of an 0-for-13 start at Hollywood Park.

More recently, Nakatani has been up and about, walking for exercise and wading into some light physical therapy. The only upside to the injury is the time he now gets to spend watching his three kids at play. He is still on medication to keep the room from spinning, and he continues to suffer both migraine headaches and the occasional tingling in the arms that is a symptom of the nerve damage sustain in a compression fracture. He is also getting bored.

"You can only watch so much news, and so many car chases on TV," Nakatani said. "I'll be glad to get back, I miss it so much. But I know I can't be out there while I'm still having dizzy spells.

"The medication helps that, but it leaves me all foggy and blurry-eyed - almost like I'm in a daze," he went on. "I'll be seeing my neurologist again next week for another MRI. I'm hoping he lets me cut back on the medication.

"When it happened, I was told it could be three to six weeks before I could ride. And when I come back, I want to be sure I'm at 110 percent."