04/03/2013 3:02PM

Kentucky Derby: Nakatani still in the hunt for first win

Barbara D. Livingston
Corey Nakatani comes back with the victory aboard Hear the Ghost in the San Felipe Stakes last month.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Jockey Corey Nakatani was asked Wednesday morning about his record in the Kentucky Derby, and answered just how you would expect the typically blunt Nakatani to answer.

“I suck,” he said.

Then he laughed.

“I guess the good thing is people know I have the ability to ride in the race,” Nakatani said. “The positive is that I’ve ridden in the Derby 16 times. I really do think there’s one with my name on it. Look at my idol, Laffit Pincay Jr. He just won it once. Pat Day won it once, and both had had multiple opportunities to win.”

As it stands now, a little more than four weeks before the 139th Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs, Nakatani has the inglorious record of having ridden in the most Derbies without a victory. He is 0 for 16, and he has only finished in the money once, with runner-up Nehro, behind Animal Kingdom, in 2011.

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Only 10 riders have ridden in more Derbies than Nakatani. Pincay ended his Hall of Fame career with one win in 21 tries, aboard Swale in 1984. Day was 1 for 22, his only victory with Lil E. Tee in 1992. Mike Smith, still active, is 1 for 19, his victory coming with Giacomo in 2005.

If Nakatani finally gets over the hump this year, he likely will have to rely on Hear the Ghost, who won last month’s San Felipe at Santa Anita and will have his final prep for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

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Hear the Ghost is the second choice, at 5-2, on the morning line of Santa Anita’s Jon White, who installed Flashback, the runner-up in the San Felipe, as the 9-5 favorite in a field of nine that was entered on Wednesday. Flashback drew the rail, with Hear the Ghost in post 2.

The rest of the field, from the rail out, is Power Broker (Rafael Bejarano the rider), Tiz a Minister (Joe Talamo), Goldencents (Kevin Krigger), Super Ninety Nine (Martin Garcia), Summer Exclusive (Edwin Maldonado), Storm Fighter (Gary Stevens), and Dirty Swagg (Tyler Baze).

All carry 122 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile race, which offers 170 points overall – 100 to the winner – under the system put in place this year by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field.

The only surprise was the addition of Summer Exclusive, a maiden winner sprinting at Santa Anita in his debut March 23.

Flashback will be ridden for the first time by Garrett Gomez, who, like Nakatani, is still seeking his first Kentucky Derby win. He is 0 for 9, his best finish a second with Pioneerof the Nile behind Mine That Bird in 2009.

Both Gomez and Nakatani are decorated riders with multiple major victories. Gomez, 41, has won 3,728 races, 13 in Breeders’ Cup events, yet has never won a Triple Crown race. He is a finalist on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, whose class of 2013 will be announced April 26.

Nakatani, 42, has 3,614 career wins, including 10 Breeders’ Cup races. But, like Gomez, he has never won any Triple Crown race, let alone the Derby.

“It’s the dream of every rider, the Derby,” Nakatani said. “You try to put yourself in position to win it every year. Obviously I haven’t been riding the right ones. It’s like driving a race car. You can have a great trip, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not on the best stock.”

For jockeys, the twists and turns leading to the Derby can yield whiplash. Two years ago, for instance, John Velazquez wound up on Animal Kingdom at the 11th hour because his mount, Uncle Mo, scratched, and Robby Albarado, Animal Kingdom’s scheduled rider, was kicked by a horse earlier Derby week. Gary Stevens flopped onto Thunder Gulch in 1995 after his leading candidate, Larry the Legend, came out of his Santa Anita Derby victory with an injury.

Oftentimes, jockeys do so well in spring preps that they find themselves having to choose from at least two Derby prospects, leaving a top contender to another rider.

This year, for instance, Velazquez has been riding both Orb, who won last week’s Florida Derby, and the unbeaten Verrazano, who was among 10 entered Wednesday in Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Assuming neither colt has a hiccup between now and Derby Week, someone is going to inherit a choice mount.

Similarly, Javier Castellano may end up having to pick between Revolutionary, who won the Louisiana Derby last Saturday, and Normandy Invasion, considered one of the leading challengers to Verrazano in the Wood.

Nakatani has no such luxuries right now. He’s all in with Hear the Ghost.

“He’s a fresh horse, a young horse,” Nakatani said of Hear the Ghost, who has raced just three times. “His mind is getting better. Every time Jerry has asked him for more, he’s been able to do it.”

“Jerry” would be Jerry Hollendorfer, the Hall of Fame trainer who also has yet to win the Kentucky Derby. But he and Nakatani have twice teamed to win the Kentucky Oaks, with Pike Place Dancer in 1996 and Lite Light in 1991.

Nakatani rode Hear the Ghost for the first time in the San Felipe. Hollendorfer said there wasn’t anything specific about Hear the Ghost that made him seek Nakatani. It was more a matter of their overall record together, plus Hollendorfer having a great relationship with Nakatani’s agent, Brian Beach, going back to their days in Northern California.

“We were wanting to use Corey on some horses and we get along well with him and also with his agent, Brian Beach, and so during the course of working horses, Corey was asked to come and work this horse and that horse, and so he ended up working Hear the Ghost and he liked him, and so he ended up riding him,” Hollendorfer said earlier this week on an national teleconference.

“I think Corey can ride anything. He rides speed well. He always comes through in the big races, and he’s a superb turf rider, so I mean, that’s why we’re interested in using his skill on a few different horses.”