Corey Nakatani will seek his first Kentucky Derby victory in his 17th attempt when he rides Blue Grass winner Dance With Fate in the Run for the Roses on May 3 at Churchill Downs.
Although he's 43, the native of Covina, California, is riding with the vim and vigor of someone half his age. Anyone who doubts his crafty competitiveness need only look at his courageously cunning victory aboard Flamboyant at 6-1 in Saturday's La Puente at Santa Anita Park.
Going into Sunday's finale of Santa Anita's winter meet, Nakatani ranked seventh in the standings with 34 wins and was second in stakes wins with eight. Nationally, he was 10th in purse earnings through April 19 with $2,951,201
He hopes to start a new run when he rides Halo Dolly for Jerry Hollendorfer in the $100,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes for California-bred or sired fillies and mares next Saturday, the second day of Santa Anita Anita's inaugural spring meet that begins Friday with twilight racing at 3 p.m. (PDT).
Halo Dolly, a veritable win machine with 18 victories from 37 lifetime starts, won the Dream of Summer Stakes at one mile on the main track March 23 with Nakatani aboard. The Fran's Valentine will be decided at the same distance, but on turf, where Halo Dolly has won 11 times from 22 starts.
"She's a real classy filly," said Nakatani, who rode the six-year-old California-bred daughter of Popular to a 1 1/2-length victory in the Dream of Summer.
"She does whatever they ask her to do. She can run on any surface, I believe. When I got beat on her (fourth in the Gamely last May) behind Marketing Mix, Tiz Flirtatious and Lady Shamrock, they're pretty good fillies, so I think she'll put her best foot forward on Saturday and hopefully win another race."
As one of Hollendorfer's go-to riders, droughts in the winner's circle are rare occurrences for Nakatani. The 67-year-old Hollendorfer, one of only five trainers with more than 6,000 career victories, is a staunch believer in Vince Lombardi's credo that "Winning is the only thing."
"Anytime you get a chance to ride for a Hall of Famer, and someone who's got as much passion as Jerry does, at his age, it's a definite plus," Nakatani said. "He's out there every morning, he works hard and he has a passion for winning just like the riders. He's competitive and it's a pleasure to ride for him."
All that's well and good, but Nakatani is still focused on every rider's dream -- winning the Kentucky Derby, which he hopes to do with trainer Pete Eurton's Dance With Fate.
"The horse earned his way to the Derby," Nakatani asserted. "It's not like they gave him a spot in the race. He won a Grade 1 prep that has as much tradition as there is. After I looked at his past performances again, and the way he ran in the Blue Grass, he deserves a shot. He earned his way into the Derby. That was my feeling. He's got the right style.
"As long as he gets over the (Churchill Downs) surface well and I can give myself a position to track a few that are busy from Point A to Point B, I think he'll give a good account of himself."
If nothing else, Nakatani has history on his side. His agent, Tony Matos, has represented riders who have won the Kentucky Derby six times" Angel Cordero Jr. (Cannonade, 1974, and Bold Forbes, 1976); Laffit Pincay Jr. (Swale, 1984); Kent Desormeaux (Real Quiet, 1998 and Fusaichi Pegasus, 2000); and Victor Espinoza (War Emblem, 2002).
Despite Nakatani riding in the race, Santa Anita's morning-line oddsmaker Jon White has listed California Chrome as his personal 5-2 favorite with regard to his current odds for the Kentucky Derby.
"There is absolutely no question California Chrome, who was so impressive when he won the Santa Anita Derby, is going to be the Kentucky Derby favorite," said White, who again will be making the official morning-lines for this year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita November 1-2.
"California Chrome heads into the Kentucky Derby having run not one, not two, not three, but four big races in a row. I started him off as a 7-2 favorite Kentucky Derby favorite, then lowered him to 3-1 after Constitution dropped out. And then, after Cairo Prince also dropped out, I lowered California Chrome again, this time to 5-2.
"What's really up in the air is who will be second favorite. Both Constitution and Cairo Prince would have been in the running for second favoritism. I'm thinking the second favorite might be Hoppertunity or Wicked Strong.
"I have those two at the same price, 8-1. Or, then again, it might turn out to be somebody else. That would not surprise me."
Here are White's current Kentucky Derby odds: California Chrome (5-2), Hoppertunity (8-1), Wicked Strong (8-1), Danza (12-1), Vicar's in Trouble (12-1), Dance With Fate (15-1), General a Rod (15-1), Samraat (15-1), Tapiture (15-1), Wildcat Red (15-1), Candy Boy (20-1), Intense Holiday (20-1), Medal Count (20-1), Ride On Curlin (20-1), Uncle Sigh (20-1), Chitu (30-1), Harry's Holiday (30-1), Ring Weekend (30-1), Vinceremos (30-1), We Miss Artie (30-1).
Churchill Downs' Mike Battaglia will announce the official morning-line for the Derby after post positions are drawn on April 30 for the 1 1/4-mile classic.