Industry Profile: Jockey Corey Nakatani Enters the Hall

It has been a long time in coming. After several years of falling short in the voting, Corey Nakatani finally got the call this year that he’s been voted into the racing’s Hall of Fame. The induction ceremonies are Friday at Saratoga Springs.

“I just think it’s amazing,” Nakatani says. “Where I started, the guys I learned to ride from, the guys I was competing against. As you know they’re all Hall of Famers. To do as well as I did, obviously you have to put in the three ‘D’s’; determination, desire and don’t take no for an answer.”

Nakatani was one of 10 children in his family growing up in Southern California. His father, Roy, was born during World War II in a Japanese internment camp at Santa Anita. Corey was a champion high school wrestler and, in a strange way, that led him to racing.

Saratoga_NatMuseumofRacing and HallofFame


“When I was 15-years-old I broke my nose in a wrestling tournament and went to the hospital at Arcadia Methodist (across from Santa Anita racetrack),” Nakatani says. “After they fixed my nose, my dad went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses.”

While dad was playing the ponies, Nakatani wandered out on the track apron and started asking questions.

“I was like, ‘Do those guys make any money?’ and, (trainer) Jack Van Berg was standing nearby,” Nakatani says. “He said, ‘That guy right there is Bill Shoemaker and he’s standing with Charlie Whittingham. They both make about a million dollars a year.’ So that summer I went to the World Jockey Association and learned about horses. Then at the end of the summer I went to work at Tony Matos’ farm, a Thoroughbred breeding farm where they broke babies and stuff.”

Early History

Nakatani worked at the farm for about three months and then went to work at Galway Downs in Temecula for Bob and Cecil Hundley.

This may be a good time to note that Nakatani had never ridden a horse in his life. He was a quick learner and by 1988 he was picking up mounts. One of the first races he ever rode was at Del Mar. He went to Tijuana and rode his first winner that year and by the spring of 1989 Nakatani was riding at Santa Anita.

30-years later, Nakatani had won 3,909 races, 341 graded stakes, 120 Grade I’s and over $234 million in purse money, 12th best among riders at the time of his retirement. He notched 10 Breeders’ Cup wins and his most memorable was, of course, his first.

“I was on Itsallgreektome in New York,” Nakatani recalls. “I got beat by Lester Piggott. When I first started riding Laffitt Pincay was my idol. He, at the time, had the most Breeders’ Cup wins. That was my focus, winning stakes races and getting the young 2-year-olds to get better.”

Nakatani says he attributes his success to staying healthy and hard work.

“Working hard, getting on a lot of horses and helping the trainers put them in the right races,” Nakatani says. “It was an amazing ride, seems like it was just yesterday I was winning all of the major stakes races in California.”

Nakatani won three riding titles at Del Mar in 1994, 1998 and 2004. He ranks sixth all-time in wins at Del Mar with 705 and second in stakes victories with 108. He gives a lot of credit to his agents – Matos, Bob Meldahl and Nick Casado.

As for the best horse he ever rode…Lava Man is the first one he mentions.

“I used to ride a lot of nice horses,” Nakatani noted. “A lot of the time you’re riding against Hall of Famers so you don’t always get the best of the horses you want to ride. I was very fortunate and lucky to win a lot of races I shouldn’t have won.”

Nakatani’s racing career came to an abrupt end at Del Mar in 2018 when he was unseated during a race and suffered a broken neck. He announced his retirement in 2019.

“I had a lot of help along the way,” Nakatani says. “One trainer that comes to mind is Jenine Sahadi; people like that who had a lot of faith in me.”