Corey S. Nakatani

Any conversation about the fiercest competitors to ever ride a racehorse has to include Corey Nakatani. Complementing his fiery demeanor on the racetrack, Nakatani also possessed magnificent talent and uncanny instincts in the irons. That combination of elite skills and driven mindset served Nakatani well throughout his distinguished 31-year career as a jockey — it landed him in the Hall of Fame.




Oct. 21, 1970, Covina, California







Racing Record


Win %


Any conversation about the fiercest competitors to ever ride a racehorse has to include Corey Nakatani. Complementing his fiery demeanor on the racetrack, Nakatani also possessed magnificent talent and uncanny instincts in the irons. That combination of elite skills and driven mindset served Nakatani well throughout his distinguished 31-year career as a jockey — it landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Born in 1970 in Covina, California, Nakatani was one of Roy and Marie Nakatani’s 10 children. A champion high school wrestler, Nakatani became interested in racing when he visited Santa Anita Park with his father after a wrestling tournament.

“My dad wanted to play a couple races and I wandered down to the apron,” Nakatani said. “The place and the atmosphere intrigued me. I went up to (Hall of Fame trainer) Jack Van Berg … I had no idea who he was at the time. I asked him if these guys made any money doing this. He pointed and said, ‘That guy there is (Hall of Fame trainer) Charlie Whittingham and that guy there is (Hall of Fame jockey) Bill Shoemaker. They both make a million dollars a year.’ I was interested.

“I immediately thought I could be a jockey. Just like that. I didn’t know anything about the sport, but I had a belief in myself. I was always a really good athlete and I knew I would be successful no matter what it was. I wasn’t trying to be arrogant or anything … I just had confidence. I was always told I was too small. That put a chip on my shoulder. I was going to beat you and prove you wrong. That was my mentality.”

Nakatani connected with trainer Roger Stein and took an entry-level job mucking stalls and walking horses. Even though he had never been on a horse, Nakatani wanted to ride. Stein suggested Nakatani get some experience on a working farm, which he did for elite jockey agent Tony Matos, before eventually breaking and galloping horses for the legendary Johnny Longden and his son, Eric.

“I was fortunate to get some good opportunities and learn from some very experienced and knowledgeable horsemen,” Nakatani said. “I was able to soak up a lot of different aspects of horsemanship and get a good foundation before I started as a jockey. I think that was important. I was very comfortable around horses. I always bonded well with them. They’re amazing athletes.”

In 1988, Nakatani traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to make his debut as a professional rider. Showing immediate aptitude, he was a winner with his first mount, Blue King, in a dead heat at the Caliente track. The following April, Nakatani returned to Southern California and began his ascent to stardom. By the time he announced his retirement in 2019, Nakatani had won 3,909 races with purse earnings of $234,554,534 (No. 12 all time at the time of his retirement). He won 341 graded stakes, including 120 Grade 1s, as well as 10 Breeders’ Cup races. Nakatani finished in the top 20 in annual earnings 16 times, including 11 times in the top 10. A winner of 10 riding titles on the Southern California circuit, Nakatani ranks in the top 10 in overall wins and stakes wins at both Santa Anita and Del Mar. He won 1,033 races at Santa Anita (No. 9 all time), including 131 stakes (No. 8), and 705 races at Del Mar (No. 6), including 104 stakes (No. 2).

Nakatani’s significant mounts included Hall of Famers Lava Man and Serena’s Song, as well as champions Itsallgreektome, Jewel Princess, Lit de Justice, My Miss Aurelia, Shared Belief, Sweet Catomine, Thor’s Echo, and Wandesta. His 10 Breeders’ Cup victories included the 1996 Distaff (Jewel Princess) and Sprint (Lit de Justice); 1997 Sprint (Elmhurst); 1999 Mile (Silic) and Sprint (Reraise); 2004 Juvenile Fillies (Sweet Catomine); 2006 Sprint (Thor’s Echo); 2011 Turf Sprint (Regally Ready) and Juvenile Fillies (My Miss Aurelia); and the 2012 Dirt Mile (Tapizar).

Grade 1 races Nakatani won multiple times include the Hollywood Derby (1990, 1993, 2013, 2015), Matriarch (1990, 1996), Hollywood Turf Cup (1990, 1998, 2010), Las Virgenes (1991, 1995, 1997, 2005), Santa Anita Oaks (1991, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2008), Kentucky Oaks (1991, 1996), Hollywood Starlet (1992, 1994, 1995, 1996), Santa Margarita Handicap (1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2014), Santa Maria Handicap (1994, 1995, 1997, 2000), Oak Leaf (1994, 2006), Eddie Read Handicap (1994, 1996, 2002, 2006, 2009), Ramona Handicap (1995, 1996, 1998), Caesar’s International (1995, 1996), Beverly D. (1995, 2001), Del Mar Oaks (1998, 2003, 2007, 2014), Shoemaker Mile (2000, 2006, 2010), Manhattan (2000, 2001), Santa Anita Handicap (2000, 2006, 2007), Frizette (2004, 2011), Clement L. Hirsch (2005, 2013), Hollywood Gold Cup (2006, 2007), and Kilroe Mile (2014, 2018).

During his early days riding in California, Nakatani was competing against some of the greatest jockeys of all time. Instead of being intimidated by the Hall of Famers surrounding him, Nakatani saw a chance to shape his riding style by studying his elite peers. 

“In California at that time we had Shoemaker, we had (Laffit) Pincay, (Chris) McCarron, (Eddie) Delahoussaye, (Gary) Stevens, (Kent) Desormeaux … all these Hall of Fame legendary jocks,” Nakatani said. “Being around guys like that would be difficult for a lot of riders, but I approached it a different way. I saw opportunity. If I wanted to get to that level, I had to learn from them, watch how they handled certain situations, pay attention to how they prepared, how they took care of themselves. I took a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of style from each of them. That’s how I developed.”

Nakatani was criticized at times during his career for his riding style. He served his share of suspensions and was somewhat of a controversial figure but insists he never intentionally sought to cause trouble on the track.  

“I was an aggressive rider, absolutely was. My job was to win races and I have always been extremely competitive in everything that I do,” Nakatani said. “I honestly don’t think I crossed the line very much at all. I was never out there trying to put someone else in danger. It’s a tough job and everyone wants to win races, but your fellow riders are family and you’re friends with them. I understood that. We’re not trying to hurt each other. I was fierce, but I wasn’t trying to be flagrant. There is a difference between race riding and crossing lines. I always rode my best no matter who it was for or the type of race. I’m proud of the effort I gave — I gave my all.”

A severe injury at Del Mar in 2018 ended Nakatani’s career. His mount, Irish Spring, clipped heels and tossed him after the horse was impeded by a rival. Nakatani suffered a broken neck, compression fractures of the T9 and T10 vertebrae, herniated discs in the C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae, and spinal cord compression.

“Those weren’t the terms I wanted to end my career on, obviously,” said Nakatani, who formally announced his retirement in November 2019. “You always want to be the one who decides how it ends, but the racing gods make those calls.”

Nakatani is at peace with his career and legacy.

“I left it all out there. There’s nothing else you can do as an athlete that is more than that,” he said. “Horses and horse racing gave me a great career for a long time. It was a true blessing. It was a great ride for sure.”

Nakatani’s love for the sport has been passed down to his son, Matt, a jockey agent for Umberto Rispoli and Mario Gutierrez. Matt Nakatani was serving as his father’s agent when the career-ending injury occurred. Another of Nakatani’s children, his youngest daughter, Lilah, is an up-and-coming rider on the show circuit.

“My family is my everything. My wife Lisa has been my biggest supporter,” Nakatani said. “All of my kids — Brittany, Matt, Austin, Tayler, and Lilah — they have been the biggest blessings in my life. Getting into the Hall of Fame is all about them; it’s something the whole family achieved. I couldn’t have done this alone. I wouldn’t be the person I am without their support and sacrifices and what they have done for me.”


Breeders' Cup Highlights

Won the 1996 Sprint — Lit de Justice
Won the 1996 Distaff — Jewel Princess
Won the 1997 Sprint — Elmhurst
Won the 1998 Sprint — Reraise
Won the 1999 Mile — Silic
Won the 2004 Juvenile Fillies — Sweetcatomine
Won the 2006 Sprint — Thor's Echo
Won the 2011 Juvenile Fillies — My Miss Aurelia
Won the 2011 Turf Sprint — Regally Ready
Won the 2012 Dirt Mile — Tapazar

Jockey Profile | Corey S. Nakatani | Equibase is Your Official Source for Thoroughbred Racing Information



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