01/31/2002 1:00AM

Slumping Nakatani seeks turnabout


ARCADIA, Calif. - Only two years after winning the riding title at Santa Anita, Corey Nakatani is far behind in this year's jockey standings.

Once expected to challenge for the riding title at any major meeting in Southern California, Nakatani has ridden just three winners in 62 mounts at the Santa Anita meet, which opened Dec. 26. Nakatani, 31, already trails leader Alex Solis by 22 wins and would gladly settle for any spot in the top 10 when the meet ends on April 21.

"It will turn around," he said between workouts on Wednesday morning. Slumps can end quickly, and Nakatani is looking toward Saturday as a breakthrough day. On an important program, he has eight mounts, including leading contenders Werblin in the $150,000 San Vicente Stakes and Momentum in the $400,000 Strub Stakes.

In recent months, Nakatani has seemingly been on the sidelines as much as he has been riding. That is partly due to a suspension for rough riding in Hong Kong in December that he served in January. When he has been available to ride, he has had few mounts. He had one ride on Wednesday and took off his only mount on Thursday. Furthermore, he switched agents last month, replacing Bob Meldahl with Tony Matos. Nakatani and Meldahl had been a team for a decade.

"When I got days in Hong Kong, I kind of lost momentum," he said. "I'm riding good. I've been working a lot of horses. It's not the best it's been, but not the worst."

Nakatani's troubles in recent years are well documented. A sister died in an apparent murder in October 1996. Less than six months later, his father died of a heart attack.

In August, 1997, he was suspended for 30 days for pushing jockey Ryan Barber from the saddle as the two galloped out after a race at Del Mar.

That incident, combined with Nakatani's quick and sometimes candid opinion, has sometimes left him out of favor with trainers. "I'm one of the more outspoken jockeys," he said. "Maybe that's why they don't like me."

But he has supporters. He won three consecutive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Sprint from 1996-98, including wins with Lit de Justice and Elmhurst for trainer Jenine Sahadi.

Sahadi uses Nakatani sparingly these days, but gave him the mount on the first-time starter Anyone Wood in Saturday's seventh race.

"I think he's very, very talented," Sahadi said. "Corey needs to do what he does best: ride horses and keep his mouth shut."

Nakatani admits that his past has sometimes affected his enthusiasm. "I got sour on the horse business," he said. "But I've had a chance to go through all that and get business where it should be."

Despite the slow meet, he has solid mounts in Saturday's top races.

Nakatani is in the midst of three-year winning streak in the Strub, which he could easily stetch to four aboard the talented Momentum. In 1999, Nakatani won the Strub aboard Event of the Year, following a year later with the heavily favored General Challenge. Last year, Nakatani pulled an upset aboard Wooden Phone, beating 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow.

Momentum, trained by Craig Dollase, will not be favored, but has a good chance. Nakatani rode Momentum when he beat older horses in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December as well as for a disappointing fifth as an even-money favorite in the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes on Jan. 12.

"Hopefully he can come back to his ability," Nakatani said. "This race should develop a little differently than last time."

Werblin, trained by Eduardo Inda, is making his stakes debut. On Dec. 26, Nakatani rode Werblin to a convincing win in a six-furlong allowance race, the start of a campaign that could more stops on the Triple Crown trail.

"I think this is an important race," Nakatani said. "He does everything on his own. He can be in a stalking position or on the lead. When Eduardo puts me on a horse, I'm confident. This horse has a good future."

Werblin may be good enough for the Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 6, a race Nakatani has never won.

By then, Nakatani hopes to have regained a spot among the circuit's leaders. A stakes win or two on Saturday would be a start.