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Melting Pot Mells of Success

October 30, 1994|JIM MURRAY

In the summer of 1943, Roy Nakatani was incarcerated by the government of the United States of America for high crimes and misdemeanors.

What was his crime? Vote Communist, did he? Send death threats to the White House? On the FBI's Most-Wanted list?

Nah. He was one week old at the time. He was born in a prison camp.

Well, what were his parents doing there? What was their crime? Kidnaping? Bank fraud? Cheating on their income tax? Counterfeiting?

Nah. Theirs was a crime of geography. They were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, Japan.

Roy Nakatani was born in what was euphemistically noted as a "relocation camp." English translation: prison camp. Life behind barbed wires. Under machine guns.

Hardly America's finest hour, but the world was at war. But we didn't ship out German-Americans or Italian-Americans, only Japanese-Americans. They were, in effect, prisoners of war even though they had never opened fire on anyone and were as loyal Americans as Nathan Hale.

The story has a happy ending in the best traditions of the American experience, the melting pot, the land of the free.

The Nakatanis, who were L.A. residents when the war broke out, were "relocated" (imprisoned) first in Colorado, but, when their son was born in camp there, they were transferred to the relocation center at Santa Anita.

And, as Shakespeare would have it, thereby hangs a tale.

Perhaps, if you were paying attention, you noticed the racing card at the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita the other day and took into account the fact the eighth race was won by a brown colt named Smooth Runner. The rider on him was "Nakatani."

Exactly. On the very plot of ground where his father took his first toddling steps under armed guard, Corey Nakatani won his 23rd race of the meeting and the 992nd of his career. Corey is the leading rider at Oak Tree at the moment and on the verge of becoming the country's leading rider. It's enough to make you want to break into chorus of "America The Beautiful."

The story is in the best traditions of the American Dream. Roy Nakatani returned from detention camp to grow up in L.A. and eventually became an MTA bus driver whose route took him to the racetrack at Santa Anita. The venue had no sad memories for him because he didn't remember all that much about it. He had been too young at the time and his parents rarely spoke about it.

So, Roy Nakatani was drawn to racing at Santa Anita, where he once lived in a tent, and he soon imbued son Corey with the same emotions and affection for the racing game.

Corey, who topped out at 5-foot-1, 110 pounds (he would have been a twin but the brother died at birth), got on every horse he found standing still. He went to jockey school at Castaic. He worshiped Laffit Pincay and studied films of every stakes ride Pincay ever took. He pestered trainers, owners, stewards. He walked hots, he exercised horses at dawn, he mucked stalls. He rode everything he could get a leg on. He rode at fairgrounds, training strips, and he pestered his idol Pincay into sharing his agent, Tony Matos. Laffit finally sighed and did--just to get some peace.

Corey rode some horses who should have been pulling a plow. His riding style was modeled after a sword-swinging Cossack. He never got on anything less than 20-1. He rode bridle-path horses. He rode claiming horses, not Derby horses. He rode not at Santa Anita and Belmont but at places such as Galway Downs and Stockton and his first "win" was a dead heat at Caliente. They thought he was Japanese around the track and some used to speak to him in pidgin English. Actually, his mother was Irish and Corey was as American as John Kennedy. But, Matos didn't help any (although he was trying to) when he tried to get Corey live mounts by telling the trainers he was Japan's leading rider. At the time, the closest Corey had been to Japan was Santa Monica, but he didn't mind. He would have done anything to get a 2-1 shot.

He used to make horse run like a cop busting up a crap game. He didn't ride a horse, he bullied him. But gradually, as he studied the master riders, he came to realize that horses, like people, respond better to coaxing than caning. He toned down his terrorism. "Laffit told me that patience wins more races than punishment and that the best way to pick a horse up in the stretch was to build his confidence. It's better to surprise a horse than to terrify him."

It was valuable lesson. Nakatani today is as deft a rider as there is at Oak Tree, which has as skilled a colony of jocks as the turf offers. He is not only the leading rider at this meet, he was the leading rider at the Del Mar meet just competed. He is at least the equal of McCarron, Stevens, Pincay, Desormeaux and Delahoussaye. The other afternoon at Oak Tree, he rode in seven races. He won one and finished second in three others. He had his 23 victories in only 18 days of the meeting.

But it's not about win, place or show for the Nakatani story. It's about a Nakatani making his first million dollars at a place where his grandparents and parent were, so to speak, POWs. For no reason. They were not spies, they were gardeners.

The grandparents are dead now, but it's about their grandson becoming a famous American and having three children of his own, Brittany, 4, Matthew, 2, and Austin, 5 months (he married Michelle Dollase, daughter of trainer Wally Dollase). And it's about a Nakatani being cheered where once they were jailed. From prison camp to winner's circle, from tin cup to silver trophy, it's America's real way to make amends. Not by Congressional reparation. That's the political way. That's not the American way. The Statue of Liberty can stop blushing.

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