Nakatani Headlines 2023 Hall of Fame Class

Corey Nakatani | Sarah Andrew


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – At the very least, Aug. 4 will always be a mighty important day in jockey Corey Nakatani's life. For good and bad reasons, but memorable nonetheless.

Exactly, five years after he earned his final victory then suffered career-ending injuries in a spill at Del Mar, Nakatani will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame on Friday morning at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion. The event, which is open to the public, begins at 10:30 a.m.

Nakatani, 52, is a member of the Class of 2023 elected in the contemporary category with three champion horses all in their first year of eligibility: Arrogate (Unbridled's Song), California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) and Songbird (Medaglia d'Oro). Jockey Fernando Toro was elected by the Historic Review Committee. The Pillars of the Turf honorees are John Hanes II, Leonard Jerome, and Stella F. Thayer.

During his freshman year in high school, Nakatani made a visit to Santa Anita Park with his father and discovered the sport that would become his life's work. Soon after, he found a job working around horses, went to jockey school and began building toward a career as a jockey. He made his professional debut at the Stockton Fair in June 1988 at the age of 17, had a couple of mounts at Del Mar and headed south to Aqua Caliente in Mexico, where he picked up his first victory.

In January 1989, Nakatani started riding at Santa Anita and grew into a top rider on the Southern California circuit, winning 10 titles. He won 3,909 races with purse earnings of $234,554,534. Nakatani's resume is topped by 341 graded stakes victories, including 10 in Breeders' Cup races. He ranks No. 14 in career earnings and 11 times finished in the top 10 of annual earnings nationally. The Covina, California native ranks in the top 10 in overall wins and stakes wins at both Santa Anita and Del Mar.

The long list of the accomplishments earned Nakatani a spot in the Hall of Fame, where he will take his place among racing's all-time greats.

“I'm excited about it,” he said. “Obviously, you want to thank a lot of people. There's a lot of trainers you were involved with, but at the end of the day it's for your family. There was a lot of the time you were away from them, at work riding races.

“It's all glamorous and everything, but it's a lot of hard work out there. Dreams come true. If you work hard enough and you're able to be successful at it, then being in the Hall of Fame is once in a lifetime.”

Though he had no background in the sport, Nakatani was the ideal size for be a jockey–he said he weighed 89 pounds as a freshman wrestler–was very athletic and fiercely competitive. Those attributes helped him find success competing against a slew of Hall of Fame riders based in Southern California. He said he went to school on what that gifted group of riders did every day and said Laffit Pincay, Jr. was his idol and mentor.

“To me, he's the best strongest finisher on a horse,” Nakatani said. “When I when I was learning to ride I took a little bit from Laffit, a little bit of Eddie D. [Delahoussaye], a little bit of Chris McCarron, a little bit of Gary Stevens, and [Bill] Shoemaker and put it into one rider. That's the way my mentality was.”

Toro, 82, was a top rider in his native Chile before moving to California in 1966. He retired in 1990 with North America totals of 3,555 victories and purse earnings of $56,299,765. He won 80 graded stakes. At the time of his retirement, he was sixth in stakes wins at Del Mar, eighth at Hollywood Park and tied for eighth at Santa Anita.

Though based in Southern California, Toro won major races all over the United States and in Canada. In Nov. 1983, Toro took over as the regular rider of Royal Heroine for British-born, California-based  trainer John Gosden. A Hall of Fame inductee in 2022, Royal Heroine flourished with Toro up, winning a division of the Hollywood Derby, the Inglewood, the Beverly Hills Handicap, the inaugural Breeders' Cup Mile, and the Matriarch.

Arrogate seized national and international attention on Aug. 27, 2016 when he won the GI Travers S. at Saratoga–his first graded-stakes start–by 13 1/2 lengths with a track-record time of 1:59.36. The Bob Baffert trainee went from that Travers triumph to a half-length victory over California Chrome in a memorable GI Breeders' Cup Classic. The Juddmonte colt easily won the inaugural running of the GI Pegasus World Cup in January 2017, over a field that included California Chrome, and the GI Dubai World Cup in March 2017. He retired at the end of the 2017 season with record earnings of $17,422,600.

“I'll always be remembered for training the only two Triple Crown winners since the 1970s,” Baffert said, “but if Arrogate had made it to the track early enough as a 3-year-old there is a very good chance I would have trained a third. Stride for stride, furlong for furlong, from gate to wire, Arrogate was every bit as good as American Pharaoh and Justify.

In the Dubai World Cup, Arrogate extended his winning streak to seven despite a terrible start that left him at the back of the field of 14. Though Arrogate typically used his speed early in his races, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith did not panic and gave the colt a patient ride. He made his way into contention and managed to beat Gun Runner by 2 1/4 lengths.

Baffert, a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee, called it the “greatest performance of any horse I ever trained.”

Arrogate was the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award winner and was named the Longines World's Best Racehorse of 2016.

California Chrome, a two-time Horse of the Year, had a great story to go with his remarkable success on the track. The California-bred rose from modest beginnings in state-bred company as a 2-year-old in 2013 to win the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness for trainer Art Sherman. He fell short of the Triple Crown sweep with a fourth-place finish in the GI Belmont S. In 2015, he was second in the Dubai World Cup. Healthy and in top form again in 2016, he won the Dubai World Cup, the GI Pacific Classic and the GI Awesome Again.

When California Chrome was retired after the Pegasus World Cup, he had two divisional titles to go with his pair of Horse of the Year awards, was a Grade I winner on dirt and turf, had 16 wins in 27 starts and earnings of $14,752,650.

Songbird was never worse than second in 15 starts for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms. She was good from the start of her 2-year-old season in July 2015, and won 11-consecutive races. Among those scores were Grade I wins in the Del Mar Debutante, the Chandelier, the Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies, the Santa Anita Oaks, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama. Her streak ended in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff where she lost by a nose to Beholder–elected to the Hall of Fame last year–in an epic showdown.

Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Songbird was a two-time Eclipse Award winner who earned $4,692,00 on the track.

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