As Michael Chamberlain pointed out in his blog They Are Off, jockey Corey Nakatani has moved his tack from his lifelong Southern California base to Oaklawn Park this week in pursuit of increasing his chances of landing a riding assignment aboard a Kentucky Derby contender.
Although the American Graded Stakes Committee upgraded the Arkansas Derby to grade 1 status for the first time in more than 20 years, nearly everybody else in racing has long recognized Oaklawn Park as fertile ground for preparing promising 3-year-olds. Oaklawn Park department of racing scribe Patrick Pope has tweeked the stakes schedule in recent years, but the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby have long proved popular with trainers with promising sophomores in their shed row. Omit the $250,000 Southwest at a mile in February and the $300,000 Rebel at 1-1/16-miles in March and you still have the $1 million Arkansas Derby April 10 that has produced Papa Clem, Gayego, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones in the last six runnings. So it is safe to say that Nakatani will have the opportunity to latch onto a Derby hopeful while residing at the Spa.
But don't think it will be like shootin' a possum on the porch in Arkansas for Hollywood invader Nakatani. Calvin Borel of Rachel Alexandra, Mine That Bird and Street Sense fame has been setting up camp in Hot Springs since the late 1980s. Borel and agent Jerry Hissam know more about Oaklawn Park than just that the corned beef is good.
It has also been well known for decades that Oaklawn Park attracts some of the cream of the Midwestern jockey crop and that invading jockeys' noses are much better served low instead of high when stepping into and out of the jocks' room in Hot Springs. A mistake made among Terry Thompson, Quincy Hamilton, Cliff Berry, Louis Quinonez, Jon Court, Chris Emigh or Eddie Razo results in the same defeat as a mistake made at Del Mar. But trainers know that too. So to shine among that group is not without merit.
Nakatani won't have to be the leading rider to have a chance at a Kentucky Derby contender at Oaklawn. Borel was sixth in the 2009 Oaklawn Park standings and Cliff Berry was Kentucky Derby bound with Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy until a last minute injury to the Arkansas Derby runner-up forced him off the Derby trail.
Having said all that, Mr. Nakatani appears to be well on his way based on the first two days of entries at Oaklawn. The spa lid-lifter has Nakatani on five mounts in eight races for trainers Steve Asmussen, Tim Ice, D. Wayne Lukas, Randy Morse and McLean Robertson. That caliber of shed rows produce Derby hopefuls.
It should also be mentioned that Oaklawn Park has a natural dirt racing surface. That is important because Churchill Downs has a natural dirt main track and Nakatani moves from Southern California where potential Derby horses must prepare on the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. Safety arguments aside, California trainers such as Bob Baffert are looking for the consistent path on which to run in preparation for Kentucky.
That dirt to dirt angle is augmented by yet another reason the Nakatani move makes sense. Southern California trainers have patronized Oaklawn Park on a regular basis even before Lukas showed up to win the Arkansas Derby with Althea in 1984 and Tank's Prospect a year later.
Trainer Gary Stute didn't come to Oaklawn Park last year to win the Arkansas Derby with Papa Clem by throwing a dart or reading a Ouachita National Forest travel brochure. His father Mel Stute, was legendary for maximizing what Hot Springs had to offer including a victory in the 1987 Oaklawn Park Handicap with Snow Chief. In other words, the boys with the tans at Coy's Steak House (which burned last year the day before Oaklawn opened) and Bel Arte were usually from Southern California. Nakatani and agent Vince DeGregory will be familiar faces for any Santa Anita conditioners coming to Oaklawn in 2010 - whether it's for the Arkansas Derby or any of the other Oaklawn stakes long popular among the west coasters.
It is an intriguing move by Nakatani to be sure. And on the outside it could easily be painted as a bit desperate by one more prone to sensationalism. But there appears to be enough evidence of Southern California calucation instead.