10/06/2016 2:26PM

Hovdey: Nakatani has Miles to ride before he sleeps


Corey Nakatani’s first experience with the Breeders’ Cup Mile did not scar him for life, although he’d rather drink castor oil than relive the moment. That first Mile did, however, light a fire that made him one of the world’s most effective jockeys in a race that by all measures has been the most exciting, most satisfying event on the Breeders’ Cup menu.

The Mile is a perfect blend of ingredients, a mix of European specialists at the distance against Americans accustomed to turning left at high speed. No race among the traditional Breeders’ Cup events has created more transcendent stars: Miesque and Goldikova, Lure and Da Hoss, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

The final dress rehearsals for the Breeders’ Cup Mile will take place Saturday, when Keeneland offers the $400,000 First Lady and the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile and Santa Anita presents the $200,000 City of Hope Mile over the Breeders’ Cup course and distance.

Name a top American turf miler, and he or she will be in one of those gates: Tepin, Tourist, Obviously, Om, Grand Arch, Ring Weekend, What a View. Stir in the well-traveled Arlington Million winner, Mondialiste, and the three races should be more than enough to set the stage for the 33rd running of the BC Mile on Nov. 5.

Six days after his 20th birthday, in the seventh Breeders’ Cup, held at Belmont Park, Nakatani found himself in a pitched battle aboard the 3-year-old Itsallgreektome late in the Mile with Jean-Luc Samyn and Expensive Decision. Nakatani had Samyn’s measure, though, so it became a matter of what would be coming at them late on the far outside.

“Everybody knew it would be that horse,” Nakatani said, referring to the Vincent O’Brien colt Royal Academy, ridden by 54-year-old Lester Piggott, who was making a comeback after a tax-dodge incarceration in England.

“Yeah, Lester beats me, right out of jail,” Nakatani said with a sigh. “There was nothing I could do about it.”

The margin was a neck, but at least the Brits were impressed. Five years later, Clive Brittain hired Nakatani to ride Sussex Stakes winner Sayyedati in the Mile at Belmont. Ridgewood Pearl and Fastness handled the deep going best, but Nakatani and his mare won a close race for third.

Nakatani was destined to finally win the Mile at Gulfstream Park in 1999. He had been riding both Silic and the mare Tuzla to stakes wins in California and opted for the colt, Silic.

“I had just won a longer race with Tuzla, so I knew the Mile would hit her right between the eyes,” Nakatani said. “I left calls like that to my agent, and we got it right.”

Although not by much. In the closest Mile finish ever, Silic edged Tuzla in an avalanche of a finish. The first five under the wire were separated by a neck, head, nose, and a half-length.

Nakatani went on to finish second in subsequent BC Miles with Forbidden Apple and Aragorn.

“I broke my back about a month before Silic’s race,” he said. “Compression fractures to my T-12 and L-1 vertabrae. That’s the kind of thing you have to do if you want to be a rider.”

In his most recent injury of consequence, Nakatani fractured his collarbone in May 2015 at Santa Anita. Later in the year, he fractured his ribs.

“After the ribs, I had to get the doctor to release me to ride Chiropractor in the Del Mar Derby,” Nakatani recalled. “When we won, I thought his name was perfect.”

The ribs healed, but the collarbone continued to give him trouble.

“I kept riding with it, and finally my doctor said I had to stop,” Nakatani said. “He wouldn’t clear me to ride until it did heal. Sometimes you’ve just got to give your body time to recover.”

Nakatani, who turns 46 this month, has not ridden since early April. He had been bouncing around the country, looking for the kind of business that once had him in demand from trainers like Christophe Clement, Steve Asmussen, Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella, and Bob Baffert. Nakatani ranks 12th on the all-time earnings list with more than $227 million banked by his mounts.

He is also one of the most polarizing personalities in the game, cursed with a penchant for speaking uncomfortable opinions to authority and sometimes exhibiting an inclination to take the enforcement of riding rules into his own hands.

Few find fault with his skills on a racehorse, however. Nine Breeders’ Cup winners and 10 Southern California riding titles speak loudly enough. His classic Pincay-esque style and eerie mastery of any turf course are legend, helping to balance the controversies that have pockmarked his career.

“I realized early that I was never going to overpower a Thoroughbred,” Nakatani said. “I had to get along with them, convince them I was on their side. And I’ve dealt with a lot of horses you’d call characters. You’ve got to understand the character in the horse to get the athlete to perform.”

Nakatani insists he’s not finished. He is anxious to get back in the saddle.

“I’ve watched some races, but I haven’t really been to the track,” Nakatani said. “I’m going to the gym, doing my physical therapy, so it shouldn’t take long to get back in shape. It took some time, but my body’s starting to feel good again.”