Logic takes over in Billy Reed’s next installment of how to pick a Derby Winner. Thanks to LouisvilleCatholicSports
By Billy Reed
The great jockey Pat Day failed to win the Kentucky Derby in his first 10 attempts, even though he frequently rode one of the favorites. As the losses mounted up, his fans began to fear that he might suffer the ultimate irony: Be the all-time jockey champion at Churchill Downs but never win the track’s signature race.
For his part, Day accepted his losses philosophically. “I believe there’s a Derby out there with my name on it,” he would say. He said it was strictly up to the will of God – Pat was the most evangelical jockey in racing history – and urged his anxious fans to be patient.
Sure enough, the 1992 Derby had his name on it. Riding the longshot Lil E. Tee for owner Cal Partee and trainer Lynn Whiting – both longtime Churchill Downs regulars – Day happily shed the onerous designation of Best Jockey Never to Win the Derby.
It’s a burden, and an unwanted distinction, that belongs to Corey Nakatani among this year’s Derby jockeys.
The rider of Nehro, the stretch-running runner-up in both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies, Nakatani is a terrific story. He’s a Japanese-American whose father was born during World War II at Santa Anita, which had been turned into an interment camp for Japanese citizens. The track was turned into a relocation center during Corey’s early childhood.
A champion wrestler in high school, Nakatani began riding thoroughbreds in 1988 and arrived on the national stage in 1991 by riding Lite Light to victory in the Kentucky Oaks. He has won six Breeders Cup races in his career, which includes more than 3,000 victories, but he’s 0-for-12 in the race he covets most – the Kentucky Derby.
He got a lot of attention in 1995, when trainer D. Wayne Lukas picked him to ride the brilliant filly Serena’s Song in the Derby. Lukas had won the roses with the filly Winning Colors in 1988 and he felt Serena’s Song had the attributes a filly needs to beat the colts at a mile and a quarter.
Breaking from the No. 13 post, Serena led the field through a mile, but then faded to 16th, beating only three horses, in the race won by the Lukas-trained Thunder Gulch. She rebounded to become the nation’s outstanding 3-year-old filly.
Now 40, Nakatani may be running out of time. His mount Saturday looks to be either (a) a teaser whose big run will never quite get him there, or (b) a serious threat to collar the leaders at the end of the Derby’s mile and a quarter.
Besides Nakatani, the list of great jockeys who have never won the Derby includes such famous names as Ted Atkinson, Russell Baze, Doug Dodson, Earlie Fires, William Harmatz, Sandy Hawley, Clarence Kummer, Don MacBeth, Eddie Maple, Darrell McHargue, Randy Romero, Shane Sellers, Alex Solis, George Woolf, and Manny Ycaza.
Of the other riders in this year’s field, John Velasquez, who will be aboard Uncle Mo, and Robby Albarado, who’ll ride Animal Kingdom, rank among the best riders who have never won the roses. Albarado, who has made his home in Louisville, also could qualify under the Home Team System of Derby wagering.
As Calvin Borel has shown the world in three of the last four years, the jockey can make a difference in the Derby. It’s the first time the callow 3-year-olds have been in a field of 20 and the first time they’ve been asked to run a mile and a quarter. So decisions about where to place your horse, when to move him, how to avoid traffic, and saving enough horse for the stretch are just as crucial as racing luck.
In 1986, for example, Day was riding the Arkansas Derby winner Rampage alongside Bill Shoemaker and Ferdinand when a hole inside suddenly opened. Both Day and Shoemaker went for it, but Shoemaker got there first. And that was the difference between Ferdinand winning the roses and Rampage finishing fourth.
As far as trainers are concerned, the best trainer in this field who has never won the Derby probably is a dead heat among Steve Asmussen (Nehro), Dale Romans (Shackleford), and Kiaran McLaughlin (Soldat). Each has won his share of major races over the last decade, but never the Kentucky Derby.
You may be surprised to learn that the following training legends never won the Derby: Tony Basile, Elliott Burch, Del Carroll, Wally Dollase, Bill Finnegan, Bobby Frankel, Sonny Hine, Hirsch Jacobs, Allen Jerkens, Tommy Kelly, Ron McAnally, Scotty Schulhofer, Harry Trotsek, Syl Veitch, Sherrill Ward, Frank Whiteley and Bill Winfrey.
It says here that if you like the Most Deserving Betting System, your three-horse $2 Exacta box ($12 total) should include Nehro, Soldat, and Uncle Mo.