02/26/2014 1:32PM

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

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.

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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.

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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.”