04/28/2008 11:00PM

For Nakatani, a long time coming


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was on the first Sunday in October last fall that jockey Corey Nakatani began earnestly dreaming about the first Saturday in May.

In a seven-furlong maiden race at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, Nakatani rode Colonel John to an easy win by 4 1/2 lengths. At that time, there were 209 days to Saturday's Kentucky Derby. It will not arrive soon enough for Nakatani.

Nakatani has won more than 3,000 races, but Colonel John - who has won the Grade 3 Sham and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby this year - could give him his first Kentucky Derby win.

"I've never been on a horse like Colonel John," he said earlier this week at Hollywood Park.

The mount on Colonel John is one that nearly got away.

In January, Nakatani, 37, broke his collarbone during a morning workout at Hollywood Park, which kept him sidelined until early March. While Nakatani was away, Colonel John won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita with Garrett Gomez aboard. When Gomez committed to ride the Wood Memorial in New York on April 5, Nakatani regained the mount on Colonel John for the same day's Santa Anita Derby.

Among the people behind Colonel John - owner and breeder WinStar Farm and trainer Eoin Harty - there was little discussion as to whether Nakatani would be back aboard.

"He made a commitment in the horse early and had a ton of faith in the horse," Harty said. "It was a mutual choice between myself and the owner."

The drama that ensued during the Santa Anita Derby may have tested that faith. Despite being in a spot of trouble on the rail on the final turn, Nakatani guided Colonel John from behind a wall of horses. Once clear in the stretch, Nakatani asked the colt for an explosive kick, and it carried him to the front in the final strides.

The win solidified Colonel John's status as a top Kentucky Derby contender. About the only person who did not seem concerned about the drama on the far turn was Nakatani.

"I was able to get Colonel John moving," he said. "The stretch run didn't surprise me at all. I've been high on the horse since last year. He does everything you want of a horse going forward."

Arrogant. Brilliant. Foolish. All would be fitting ways to describe Nakatani over the years. A native of Southern California, he has never lacked self-confidence, major stakes wins, or the occasional run-in with the stewards.

"With great brilliance, comes some quirks," Harty said. "You've got to work with it."

Nakatani has won 10 riding titles in Southern California, most recently at the 2006 Oak Tree meeting. He has seven wins in Breeders' Cup championship races, including four runnings of the BC Sprint. He has guided Lava Man to six of the gelding's seven Grade 1 stakes wins.

But there are a few well-documented blots on his personal record. Twice, he has received 30-day suspensions for infractions on the racetrack - pushing jockey Ryan Barber from the saddle as the two were galloping out after a race at Del Mar in 1997, and for causing an accident in a race at Santa Anita in 2004.

"I've made bad decisions and paid the price for it," he said.

Nakatani also has made several comebacks from injury. Friday marks the six-year anniversary of an accident at Hollywood Park in which Nakatani suffered fractured vertebra at the base of his neck. He did not return to riding until later that summer and won only 75 races that year, the only season since his first full year of riding in 1989 that he has not had 100 winners.

The father of three, Nakatani married the former Lisa Felder in December 2005, his second marriage. A former jockey in Texas, Felder is a nurse in the intensive care unit of a Southern California hospital.

"She knows what it takes for me and has always given me support," Nakatani said.

Colonel John will be Nakatani's 14th mount in the Kentucky Derby, and he describes the colt as his best chance "by far."

Nakatani has finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby twice, with Green Alligator in 1991, his first ride, and aboard Halory Hunter in 1998. Last year, he was 13th aboard the outsider Great Hunter.

"Most of the horses I've ridden have been 15- or 20-1 shots," he said.

Colonel John will probably be the second choice behind Big Brown, who is firmly on Nakatani's mind as an expected front-runner. Colonel John has enough speed to stalk the pace in the Derby.

"I think we'll be in the right spot," Nakatani said.

Riding such a leading contender does not concern Nakatani.

"I don't get butterflies anymore," he said. "It still gets to you but it's not butterflies. You're getting keyed up for the race."

Nakatani has been aboard Colonel John for four races, and he won three of them. The only loss was a runner-up finish in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park last December, and Nakatani lists that as one of the colt's finest performances.

Since then, Colonel John has only gotten better, Nakatani said.

"Every race, he's matured," he said. "Ability wise and mentally, he's been battle tested. I have no doubt we'll win the race."