Nakatani booking for new jockey, but 'still more left' with Dad

Nakatani booking for new jockey, but 'still more left' with Dad
Photo: Courtesy of Matt Nakatani

As jockey Corey Nakatani recovers from a summer spill, his son and agent Matt Nakatani is helping recent West Coat arrival Angel Cruz gear up for Del Mar’s Fall Racing Festival, which opens Friday.

The younger Nakatani, 26, grew up watching his dad race first in California and then in the Midwest and along the East Coast. After moving to Kentucky, Nakatani played football at Shelby County High School, and while his dad rode under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, Nakatani set his eyes on another venue nearby.

From the Churchill Downs’ grandstand, it is impossible to miss Cardinal Stadium, home to the University of Louisville’s football team. And that is where Nakatani found himself in college, playing kicker while studying communications, business and sports administration.

“It was kind of an avenue for me where I decided I wanted to be a sports agent,” he said. “I wanted to go into the NFL and represent a lot of friends. I had a lot of contacts in the NFL, so I figured law school was a route for me and I wanted to do that.”

Nakatani graduated in 2014 and moved back to California the next year. While waiting a year to re-establish in-state residency before applying to law school, his dad took a break from riding at the end of March 2016 to help his wife through sickness. As things resolved themselves, thoughts of returning to the saddle occurred.

“I was just waiting that year and then the opportunity of my dad came along and I was always trying to get him to go back to riding,” Nakatani said. “It was right before Breeders’ Cup, I remember that, and I was trying to get him to go back. I was like, ‘Hey, it’s time to go. Go. Go. Everything’s better now.’”

Corey Nakatani made the decision to ride again, but wanted to remain on the West Coast to be near family. It was a moment where he was in need of an agent, and his son thought of a different way he could apply his sports administration background.

“Then it was kind of the idea of, well, I’ve always followed the horses, I’ve always handicapped the races, I’ve watched every race of his in the last probably 10 years I would say, he said. “I asked him, ‘What would you think if I was your agent?’”

His dad told him it was an up and down game, but if he was interested, talk to trainers at the track and see what they had to say.

They wanted to ride Corey Nakatani again, and so father and son teamed up to win a stakes race the first week back. Things picked up in 2017 when the jockey hopped aboard Bolt d’Oro, who won two Grade 1s in the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner Stakes. The good fortune continued into three graded stakes in 2018, including a victory aboard Bowies Hero in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile.

Nakatani was used to the highs and lows in his football days. He played under Coach Charlie Strong, who was new when Nakatani joined the team. In 2013, the Cardinals made it to the Sugar Bowl as the major underdog to Florida. The final score? Louisville: 33. Florida: 23.

“Your hard work comes through, and through the horses and through the races that you get to win,” Nakatani said of working with his dad. “And that’s the same thing with football. We put in so much time and so much work into it, I think that’s what really got us over the edge and got us to be a good team. When I first got there we were terrible and Coach Strong’s first year, so it was really just the work ethic that we put in. It really changed the whole demeanor and 
atmosphere of the team.”

Things changed on the track when Corey Nakatani was injured in a spill Aug. 4 at Del Mar. He was aboard Irish Spring, who clipped heels with a drifting horse and fell. Irish Spring did not survive the injuries, and his rider was left with a herniated disk and a T7 spinal fracture. Nakatani said his dad still has good days and bad days. There is no timeline on a full recovery.

“He’s a competitor,” Nakatani said. “He definitely says he’s wanting to get back, and we’ll see where it goes. Who knows? You never know. It’ll just take time.”

With his dad taking the time to recover, Nakatani was an agent without a jockey. That is, until East Coast-based Angel Cruz contacted him about moving his tack to Southern California.

Cruz grew up in Puetro Rico, where he learned to ride alongside Eclipse Award-winner Jose Ortiz and his brother, Irad Ortiz Jr. He was the leading rider at Aqueduct’s 2015 spring meet and a 2014 finalist for the Apprentice Jockey Eclipse Award. Cruz, a frequent rider in Maryland, notched his first Grade 1 when he traveled to Keeneland for trainer Graham Motion and won the 2016 Alcibiades Stakes aboard Dancing Rags. The victory sent him to that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita Park. Cruz fell in love with California and made the move in the middle of October this year.

Success for the new jockey and agent pair came in Cruz’s second ride since moving to Southern California. Cruz piloted The Hunted to a maiden special weight victory Oct. 27 for trainer Richard Baltas. The jockey also had multiple mounts lined up each of the last three days during Santa Anita’s closing weekend.

Nakatani is waiting on his dad to reach 100 percent health before a decision is made on a future riding career. Even without a set date, the father-son duo is wanting to tackle more big races together. Until then, Nakatani will continue to dedicate himself to finding rides and making connections with Cruz.

“If we could work the hardest and we could find the best horses and really try to take it to the next level,” Nakatani said, “our goals were to win Grade 1s and win the Kentucky Derby and win the big races. We got a lot of them achieved. I think there’s still more left that we’re looking to go after.”

 

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