11/01/2006 12:00AM

It takes grit, and he has it

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LOUISVILLE, Calif. - By the end of business on Saturday, Corey Nakatani could be the name on everyone's lips, and for all the right reasons.

"Embattled" is too tame to describe Nakatani's history. "Operatic" might work better, conjuring up soaring heroics and grim tragedies. He is flawed and admits it, often suffering from self-inflicted wounds. And yet fate has dealt him the occasional hand that would make most people fold.

Not Nakatani. A cancer scare couldn't stop him. Neither could death threats, nor personal loss, nor any of the numerous riding injuries he has survived, including a severe concussion sustained in the spring of 2002 that could have ended his career for good.

In the fall of 1996, Nakatani responded to the murder of his sister by winning two races on the Breeders' Cup card at Woodbine, including his second of three straight victories in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Nakatani owes his ability to ride in this year's Breeders' Cup to the efforts of his wife, Lisa, and the physicians who quickly diagnosed and treated him for a virulent bacteria that raced through his intestines last August. He describes the illness in morbid terms - "I saw the light at the end of the tunnel" - but no one was surprised to see him return to competition in time to ride Lava Man to victory in the Pacific Classic, and then later Aragorn in the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Mile.

Lava Man and Aragorn, along with the 2-year-olds Great Hunter and Cash Included, threaten to give Nakatani the kind of Breeders' Cup that jockeys only dare to imagine in their wildest dreams.

In fact, the races are so competitive that it has been impossible for any single rider to dominate the day. Since the Breeders' Cup began in 1984, no jockey has won more than twice on a program. Nakatani is one of 17 riders who have doubled at least once.

From the start, Nakatani seemed destined to play the big rooms. He emerged from a season at Agua Caliente in 1989 with more polish than most teenage apprentices. The following year, less than a week after turning 20, he made his Breeders' Cup debut in the Mile at Belmont Park and thought he had the race won aboard the 36-1 Itsallgreektome. Then Lester Piggott and Royal Academy came along in the last jump to beat them a neck.

"It showed me, though, just how tough these races are," Nakatani said this week as he packed for Louisville. "As good as your horse can run, you'd better expect that there will always be another one coming at you."

When asked about his Saturday dance card, Nakatani trotted out the reliable sports cliche that he "wouldn't trade places with anybody." He insisted this includes Javier Castellano, who rides Bernardini against Lava Man in the $5 million Classic.

"Lava Man has been running against a lot tougher horses in California than he's been given credit for," Nakatani said. "Bernardini's never been tested by a horse like Lava Man. How many times have you seen a horse like that, and the first time he's headed by a good horse he gets beat?"

As a two-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks and victorious on Reraise in the 1998 BC Sprint, Nakatani knows Churchill Downs well enough to have a plan in the Classic for Lava Man. In their most recent collaborations - the Pacific Classic and the Goodwood Handicap - Nakatani has ripped the heart out of the opposition with a dramatic move approaching the quarter pole, opening an unbeatable lead.

At Del Mar and Santa Anita, however, the quarter pole is on the turn. At Churchill Downs, with its longer stretch, the pole is on the final straightaway. Will this make any difference?

"I'm not giving away my strategy," Nakatani said. "But I do know that 90 percent of the races at Churchill Downs seem to be won from the quarter pole to the eighth pole."

The Bill Shoemaker Award awaits the top jockey of Breeders' Cup Day, and that would go down just fine with Nakatani. Shoemaker along with Laffit Pincay and Eddie Delahoussaye are role models that Nakatani has clung to throughout his career.

Still, none of those Hall of Famers ever made headlines for pulling another rider out of the saddle after a race, as Nakatani did to Ryan Barber at Del Mar in August 1997. Nor were they ever suspended for what stewards ruled was a deliberate act of interference that dropped a horse ridden by Javier Santiago during a race at Santa Anita in March 2004.

In Nakatani's world, these incidents exist alongside his remarkable riding record, which includes more than 3,000 winners, numerous California riding titles, and a record in the Breeders' Cup that ranks with the very best. Only four riders have brought home more one-two-three finishers, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame.

Nakatani has had to deal with what can only be described as a righteous vigilante streak, harboring little patience for riders making potentially dangerous mistakes during the heat of a race. Neither has he exhibited much faith in stewards to prevent further transgressions. Nakatani has, at least, given such behavior serious thought.

"I've ridden with a broken collarbone, a broken back, and a lot of other injuries," he said. "It's not that I'm trying to prove anything, or make excuses. It's just that I felt like I had to ride or I'd lose the horses, and I was scared to death of failure. Riding in pain doesn't make you the nicest person sometimes.

"I said what I thought, and I didn't care what people thought about me," he said. "But I hope I'm smarter now. Wiser. I understand that I can stop when I'm hurt, and the business will be there when I come back. I think I've learned that I don't have to be that hard, that tough."

On Saturday, all Nakatani has to do is win, and the one he really wants is the Classic. He makes only one promise:

"I'll know where Bernardini is," he said, "and I'll be taking the race to him."