Long odds no barrier to Nakatani's talent

British hopes at the Breeders' Cup rest partly on the skills of a 'cold-blooded' rider. Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online
When the funds run short for the valiant travellers to Belmont Park this weekend help may be at hand. By great providence, Corey Nakatani, the richest jockey in the Western world this season, will be around to bale out the needy.

The Japanese-American rider, who will be 25 on Breeders' Cup day when he partners Newmarket-trained Sayyedati in the Mile, has a stunning set of statistics to his name for 1995. He is among the top American riders for wins and earnings, having partnered 235 winners from just over 1,000 rides and earned $12m (pounds 7.6m) along the way. His lifetime earnings have now left $50m somewhere in the wake.

For all that success, Nakatani is perhaps best remembered in Britain for a race he lost, the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile, in which he finished second on Itsallgreektome. His conqueror that day was a chap in his mid- 50s who had tapped out the pipe, flipped off the slippers and hung up the dressing gown before emerging from the wardrobe with his riding silks on. Lester Piggott and Royal Academy made that event memorable for so many people, not least Nakatani himself.

"That race will stick in my mind for my whole career and I'll be able to tell my grandkids that was what happened to me the first time I was in the Breeders' Cup," he said. "Lester Piggott is a tremendous rider, he is an idol to a lot of young riders, and if you have got to take after someone, it should be Lester Piggott."

In jest at least (and this may be a warning to those requesting a loan this weekend), Nakatani has his resemblances to Old Stoneface. At the outset of this interview and fortified by the company of other jockeys, the rider who is gold bullion in a human form asked for a fee.

While Nakatani may now be some way from preparing the puppy and cardboard message for a session at the tube station, his has not always been a comfortable life. The son of a Japanese father who was once in a relocation camp near Santa Anita during World War II, Nakatani has been in combat zones himself. A former champion high school wrestler, he had to be at his sharpest around the dinner table as the company was his nine siblings.

This history is obvious in him. Though the hair is dark brown and wavy, his features are unmistakeably Oriental. The arms are unusually well muscled for one in his trade. Like many American sportsmen, Nakatani has been imbued with the idea that the boys with notebooks should not be attended to with a cattle prod. Even when he is being evasive he says something, a far cry from some British jockeys, who wonder if they have been too loquacious if they tell you to get stuffed.

Though he did not sit on a horse before his 16th birthday, it soon became clear that Nakatani was not bedevilled by lost time in his native California. Early in his career, Tony Matos, who has been a jockeys' agent for Laffit Pincay jnr and Angel Cordero jnr among others, said: "At this point - and this is a big thing to say - the kid is as good as Pincay and Cordero. He has the patience of [Eddie] Delahoussaye, the strength of Laffit and the brains of [Bill] Shoemaker. Corey is a cold-blooded rider."

Nakatani owes his present station to an early reputation for feats of alchemy on long-priced horses (this estimation was hardly spoiled when Cool Jazz, his first ride in Britain, won Ascot's Diadem Stakes at 33- 1 a month ago).

Europe got the chance to observe these skills as the jockey felt he needed a break from his schedule in America. As he had ridden in Sweden and France, as well as returning to his homeland, during this supposed sabbatical, it must be that his regular hours in the States also include a night job in a cab.

Nakatani's impression of life over the Atlantic is not dissimilar to that of plenty of his countrymen, the ones who say "gee, I like Europe. It's just so old".

"It was an honour just to ride at Chantilly the other day," the jockey said. "I'm 24 years old and who would have thought even five years ago I would be riding there. I wouldn't have believed it. I was flattered to be there and getting the experience. Every place is different and I got the chance to learn techniques and ways of doing things in Europe."

He also got the chance to impress, which is why he supplements his American- based mounts on Saturday with Sayyedati, who is trained by Clive Brittain.

"I'm very impressed with the way Corey rides,'' said Brittain, who also trains Cool Jazz. ''It was a tremendous piece of riding at Ascot that day and he made it look so natural and easy. Nobody realised how badly the horse [Cool Jazz] can hang sometimes. This is Sayyedati's last race and as you need every advantage in the Breeders' Cup it was decided to go for Corey over Brett [Doyle, her regular partner], simply for his knowledge of American racing," Brittain added.

If it is strength and pugnacity that Sayyedati needs between her shoulders, that is no problem. Corey Nakatani is no koala bear in the saddle, but he prides on staying inside the confines of the rules. "I'll be going out there to ride competitively and aggressively but I'm not into making enemies wherever I go," he said. He did not make one in this conversation.

n Britain's challengers arrived at Kennedy Airport yesterday: Classic entry Halling, sprinters Lake Coniston, Hever Golf Rose and Owington, Turf hope Tamure and Milers Harayir, Sayyedati and Soviet Line.