02/26/2014 1:32PM

Kentucky Derby: For jockeys, finding the best mount can be a game of musical chairs

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Shared Belief won the CashCall Futurity in December with jockey Corey Nakatani but has yet to start this year because of a foot injury.

Corey Nakatani was looking. So, too, was his agent, Tony Matos, as was trainer Gary Contessa. At this time of year, everyone is looking, either for the right horse to get to the Kentucky Derby or the right rider to take you there.

Nakatani is the regular rider for Eclipse Award winner Shared Belief, but with that horse’s 2014 debut delayed because of a quarter crack, Matos has been busy looking for other options. Last week, Nakatani, who is based in California, went to Fair Grounds to ride Gold Hawk in the Risen Star Stakes for trainer Steve Asmussen. They finished fifth.

This Saturday, Nakatani will travel farther east, to New York, to ride Uncle Sigh for the first time in the Grade 3, $500,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

“We’re hoping Shared Belief shows up quick, but we’ve got a lot of clients, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Matos said.

Nakatani, 43, has never won the Kentucky Derby. In fact, with 16 losses, beginning in 1991, he holds the inglorious distinction of being the jockey to have ridden in the Derby the most times without winning. He came closest in 2011, when he was second with Nehro.

The Derby, or any Triple Crown race win, is one of the few boxes Nakatani has yet to check off during his accomplished career. He has won 3,689 races, and his purse earnings of $217,200,312 place him 11th all time. He has won 10 Breeders’ Cup races and has earned multiple meet titles at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and the late Hollywood Park.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Who's hot, who's not]

Contessa said Nakatani was high on his list as a potential jockey for Uncle Sigh, who had been ridden by Pablo Morales in his three prior starts, including a second-place finish in the Withers Stakes four weeks ago.

“We’re very good friends, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of success over the years,” Contessa said Wednesday. “He’ll come to New York, and we’ll win two, three races at a time.”

Contessa said George “Chip” McEwen, whose Wounded Warrior Stable is a co-owner of Uncle Sigh, was onboard, too, since Nakatani in January won the Blue Norther Stakes for Wounded Warrior in California with the filly Sushi Empire, trained by Eoin Harty.

“The owner likes Nakatani, so it was an easy sell for me,” Contessa said.

The Gotham drew a field of 11, including Withers winner Samraat – like Uncle Sigh a member of the Derby Watch top 20 – and Harpoon, a former Derby Watch member.

The Gotham is the lone stakes race this week offering points toward the May 3 Kentucky Derby. Last Saturday, both the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds were run. And on March 29, the Florida Derby will be run at Gulfstream on the same day as the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Having major preps on the same day presents another challenge for jockeys and their agents when looking for a mount for the Kentucky Derby. It is a path Ron Anderson, the agent for Joel Rosario, has successfully navigated. Riders he represents have won the Derby four times, including last year, when Rosario prevailed with Orb.

Last Saturday, Rosario remained at Gulfstream to ride Top Billing, who finished third in the Fountain of Youth. But to do so, he had to relinquish the mount in the Risen Star on Intense Holiday, whom Rosario had ridden to a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25.

Had the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth been even a day apart, Rosario could have kept both mounts for the time being. But with both on the same day, a choice had to be made. Mike Smith picked up the mount on Intense Holiday, who won the Risen Star.

“There’s lots of days you could be three or four places,” Anderson said Wednesday by telephone.

Conflicts can arise for the same race. Rosario went to California on Feb. 16 and won the San Vicente Stakes with Kobe’s Back, who next races March 15 at Oaklawn Park in the Rebel Stakes. The Rebel, though, also is the next start for Strong Mandate, whom Rosario rode to a second-place finish in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 17. Anderson and Rosario are sticking with Strong Mandate, so Jose Lezcano will ride Kobe’s Back in the Rebel.

“We thought Strong Mandate ran a big race last time from an outside post, losing all that ground, and he had missed a lot of training time before the race because the track was frozen,” Anderson said.

Kobe’s Back is trained by John Sadler, who has Rosario returning to Santa Anita on March 8 to ride Kristo in the San Felipe Stakes. Anderson said he believes owners and trainers like Sadler understand that jockeys and their agents have to put securing the best possible Derby mount as the highest priority.

“A 3-year-old takes preference over everything this time of year,” Anderson said. “This time of year, that’s the focus.”

Pa Cerv More than 1 year ago
If Gomez stayed in the coaching of Ron Anderson he would NOT be in the trouble he is in today! Of course when you are stuck on stupid, there isn't anyone who can make you do what is right. Joel knows that Weak Mandate will not make it to May 3rd, and Mike Smith knows he is not losing anything if he does not re-ride Intense Holiday. Shug's two horses are the one- two finishers at Churchill on the first Saturday in May.
Dennis Mathews More than 1 year ago
Hollendorfer knows what he's doing, no foot no horse
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
I find who gets the month & why fascinating & wonder how the regular day to day mounts are allocated.I'm sure the agents are a big part of it,& the owners,but would like to know more about the process.
Matt Banchero More than 1 year ago
doesn't matter who they ride...whoever has the mount on Constitution is winning the derby so looks like Castellano is getting his 1st derby win! Congratulations Javier!
Tom Temple More than 1 year ago
Why do you feel Constitution will win the Derby? What are you basing it on? Just curious, thanks.
Matt Banchero More than 1 year ago
This horse has loads of Talent and he's learning how to rate and use his natural speed rationally....only raced twice so will not be run into the ground by the time the Derby comes around in two months...after his final prep when he wins the Florida Derby he will be one of the betting favorites the 1st Saturday in May.....add a top notch Jock and that only adds to the appeal.....take a look back at his impressive maiden race....something special about this horse and don't believe the speed bias was the only reason he won last weekend at Gulfstream....he was going to win that race with or without speed favoring track....to me... pedigree says he can get the 1 1/4 distance as well....
Mike Hendricks More than 1 year ago
Now thats a PRETTY bold STATEMENT AT THIS TIME, my money says your wrong!!
Matt Banchero More than 1 year ago
take off your training wheels and put on your big boy pants Mike! Gotta take a stand sometime in life!
Richard More than 1 year ago
Jockeys don't win races; they lose races. It is the horse that wins or loses the race and most top jockeys are able to give their mounts the opportunity to win. If a horse should have won but because of a poor ride he does not: the jockey takes the blame. Of course racing luck can't be eliminated from this discussion but overall - there is nothing a jockey can do to make a horse win other than giving him every opportunity ( if the horse is good enough ) with a smart ride. Poor judgement leads to the best horse losing but the Jockey can't make the inferior horse perform any better than his limit.
cappelletti63 More than 1 year ago
I love the way Kobe's Back ran last out.Why put Lascano,use a west coast jock.Bejarano road him first time out winner.Come on John........
noalaistoday More than 1 year ago
Because they want to win. Bejarano is an after thought on Triple Crown and Breeders Cup horses.
Gary Camejo More than 1 year ago
Can't imagine this grab for rosario ahead of an ace jockey like mike smith just insane.
Steve Brabant More than 1 year ago
You are saying that Rosario is not an ace jockey? Other than Gary Stevens who is on a level all his own Rosario is the guy..
Richard More than 1 year ago
Javier Castellano out performs both of them.
tim More than 1 year ago
You been following Rosario lately at Gulf? Its a horror show. Hes strangled one big favorite after another. He is not in the same league as Castellano.
Will More than 1 year ago
Castellano is the best on the planet right now!!! Rosario will be fine, he can ride for me everyday. He goes cold every couple when he gets too patient.
Will More than 1 year ago
mike smith is awful!
Bogdan More than 1 year ago
Are you nuts?Nakatani will never win Kentucky Derby.You want to bet?Every race with 10 or more horses he is a flop.Unless he can go wire to wire,but such good horse he will never get!End!
Dave Mckenna More than 1 year ago
your stating the obvious, he sucks elephant nuts and is an autotoss, remember col john.
tim More than 1 year ago
Taylor Rice can ride as good as any of them. I would put her on my horse for the derby. And especially in the Gotham, I would ride her before I flew in another jockey. Her Derby wins aren't any less than just about all the other jockeys in that race.
LUIS More than 1 year ago
I also would ride her.
Bob More than 1 year ago
Her ? What about the Ortiz bros. , Cornelio or Manuel Franco who have the same ability
Will More than 1 year ago
Franco lol? Cornelio is by far the best of that bunch
Dave Mckenna More than 1 year ago
bring back nicky santagata to stiff 3-5 shots
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
Or Squeaky Krone to knock Nick out.
Dave Mckenna More than 1 year ago
nicky would have her wacked
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
I get the double entendre,you dirty old man.
carol More than 1 year ago
I thought he was back working already....Shared Belief