08/16/2004 11:00PM

Nakatani riding wave of confidence

Nakatani won his first riding title at Del Mar. He now covets another.

DEL MAR, Calif. - There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. It's a tightrope that jockey Corey Nakatani has walked throughout his career. Occasionally he has fallen off, landed hard, and had to dust himself off. This summer at Del Mar, Nakatani is striking just the right balance. He is ingratiating himself anew with prominent trainers, is riding with supreme self-assurance, is making the right moves at every critical point in a race, and as a result is rocketing up the jockeys' standings. After four weeks, Nakatani is second, behind only Tyler Baze.

When the money's down, though, no one has been better than Nakatani, who leads all riders with six stakes victories at Del Mar. This past weekend, Nakatani won two more stakes, with the standout 3-year-old turf colt Blackdoun in the La Jolla Handicap, and the exciting 2-year-old colt Roman Ruler in the Best Pal Stakes. He and Bob Baffert, who trains Roman Ruler, on Sunday will try to capture the meet's richest race, when they team with During in the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic.

Del Mar has been the scene of some of Nakatani's best and worst moments. He won his first riding title here in 1994, and did it again in 1998. But this is also the track where, in an intemperate moment, Nakatani pushed Ryan Barber off a horse just after the finish of a race, and where Nakatani has suffered more than his share of riding injuries.

Like the nearby Pacific Ocean, Nakatani can be choppy and turbulent. But this summer, the seas are calm and steady.

"Things are going great," the 33-year-old rider said the other morning while sipping a cup of coffee after training hours. "I'm riding with a high degree of confidence. I'm getting a chance to be leading rider. Being healthy has made a big difference."

In the last three years, Nakatani's career has been interrupted by a fractured thumb and a fractured vertebra. He admits he tried to ride before he was ready, rode poorly, and got fewer mounts. Bad horses gave him a bad attitude. Nakatani has been down that hole before.

"I was bitter, because I thought I could have been doing better," Nakatani said. "I wasn't riding as much as I wanted, and I got sour. All I want to do is to out and win races. When you're pressing, you don't ride that good. Horses sense it, and they don't run that good.

"It doesn't work when you're not 110 percent," said Nakatani, who is probably the best natural athlete on this circuit. "Now, I'm 110 percent. I feel I can do anything on a horse. I'm getting clients back. Slowly and surely, I've come back. I'm riding aggressive. I've never lacked confidence. I'm trying to get back to where I was."

Nakatani went through several agents in recent years before hooking up with Nick Cosato in January, around the time Cosato parted ways with troubled Patrick Valenzuela. Nakatani has given Cosato much of the credit for helping him get back on track. But Baffert, for one, believes that Nakatani bears as much responsibility for his resurrection as anyone.

"I told him, it's you," Baffert said. "He got hurt last year when he was starting to get his mojo back. Then he came back too quick and he wasn't himself.

"He's always been a talented rider. He's just had issues with his temperament and getting frustrated, especially with his injuries. He's starting to focus now. I stay on his case all the time. These riders have to take care of their bodies. They've got to keep their priorities straight. That hasn't always been the case with him, but he's getting better. He's burned a lot of bridges, but he's building them back up."

Baffert thought Nakatani's ride on Roman Ruler was one of his best of the meet, not only because he followed instructions by letting the colt settle early, but also because Nakatani's split-second reactions allowed Roman Ruler and Nakatani to avert disaster when Wetherly and jockey Kent Desormeaux went down in front of them on the turn.

"I wanted him to teach that colt something," Baffert said. "Break, settle, let him get dirt in his face. He was real patient. He was so lucky he didn't run over that other horse and got through. That could have been disastrous."

Nakatani wants to win the jockey title here. He is currently eight victories behind Baze.

"I love Del Mar. This is where I won my first riding title," Nakatani said. "And I think I can make a difference here. You've got to have the horse, but there's some races, like on the grass, where if you have patience, you can make a difference."

But Nakatani also wants to continue lining up choice mounts for the major races this fall. He's made a nice harvest so far this summer.

"It's exciting now," Nakatani said. "I'm riding a lot of good horses, and winning a lot of good races. Shoemaker was the best. Laffit, no one was a stronger finisher. Then you need the clock of Eddie Arcaro. Put it together, and see where you're at. Hopefully I can do that."