The rain came down in sheets that day, turning the normally manicured Santa Anita Park racetrack into a muddy swamp. Partway into the day, Corey Nakatani, horse racing's hottest jockey, had come in third in one race and had lost badly in two others.
Pacing in front of one of the mounted closed-circuit televisions replaying the race, Nakatani brought his riding crop down hard on the back of a leather chair. Whap! Other jockeys watching television in the Jockey Room turned their heads to see what the commotion was all about.
"I'm staying clean, but I'm not winning," Nakatani yelled, noticing, as if for the first time, his drenched but unsullied racing silks.
The scene was nothing new to other jockeys. Some remember a few years back when Nakatani was frequently unable to contain his anger and disappointment after a loss. And Nakatani now admits sheepishly that it wasn't unusual for him to get into post-race fistfights or challenge other jockeys to meet in the parking lot after work to settle on-track differences.
These days, however, it's rare to see the 24-year-old Covina native blow up. For the most part, Nakatani has checked his once-hot temper and replaced it with a cool on-track confidence that has catapulted him to the top of one of the toughest colonies of riders in the nation.
In 1989, the teen-age Nakatani led all Southern California apprentice riders in prize money, with $2.5 million. In following years, upon graduating to full jockey status, he rode in the Kentucky Derby--although not in the money--came within a neck of winning the prestigious Breeder's Cup and, in 1994, took the Del Mar title for most wins of the season, 51. That same year, Nakatani also won the Oak Tree title for the most wins in the Oak Tree Stakes at Santa Anita.
Despite an eight-week layoff to recover from a broken ankle and a handful of five-day suspensions for racing infractions, Nakatani still managed to pull down $9.4 million in winnings last year, grossing approximately $800,000 in earnings.
By the end of this January, Nakatani had won $1 million in prize money, making him the most successful jockey in the country so far this year.
Nakatani is notable for more than his rapid rise to the top of the racing world. He is the only Japanese American riding professionally in Southern California. He is also the only home-grown jockey racing at Santa Anita. But it is the bittersweet irony that the track itself holds for Nakatani and his family that truly sets him apart from the other jockeys.
At the start of World War II, Nakatani's grandparents were detained at a holding station set up at the Santa Anita racetrack before being shipped off to a Denver internment camp for Japanese Americans. Nakatani's father, Roy, a Vietnam veteran and a 20-year employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was born in the camp.
Nakatani and his family don't talk about the internment much. A great deal of the family's identification with its Japanese heritage was wiped away as a result of the political imprisonment of his grandparents and their children.
Immediately after the war, Nakatani's grandparents (his grandfather, Willie Nakatani of Azusa, died in December) would not allow their children to talk about "the incarceration," as Roy Nakatani calls it. They also would not allow their 12 children to speak Japanese.
Corey Nakatani is himself one of 10 children; neither he nor any of his siblings ever learned to speak Japanese. Of his Japanese ancestors--his mother is of Danish and Irish extraction--only his grandmother, Shizuko, is able to speak the language, though she rarely does, family members said.
Nakatani recalled traveling to Japan with his father recently to compete in a race. Neither could communicate with their hosts.
"It's weird how things happen," Nakatani said. "My grandparents had everything taken away from them."
Now he's physically in the same spot where their problems began, he said. "Every time I go out there and win, I like to think they are proud of me."
But the family link to Santa Anita played no direct role in ushering Nakatani into the world of professional horse racing. The vehicle of fate that literally drove Nakatani to the track came in the form of an MTA bus.
Santa Anita Park was part of bus driver Roy Nakatani's route when Corey was a youngster. With Corey and other children from the close-knit family in tow, as they often were, Roy Nakatani would periodically stop for breaks. When he wasn't having the youngsters scramble for coins that he'd throw in the back of the bus when it was empty, Roy Nakatani would take his breaks at places like parks, or the beach or at the track.
When Corey was 14, at the end of his sophomore year at Northview High School in Covina, his father sat him down at the dining room table one night after dinner and asked Corey what he wanted to do with his life. Corey, who had always been more athletic than his siblings, said he wanted to race horses.