Nakatani Whip Incident Called ‘Honest Mistake’


Mike Mitchell, the trainer whose 2-year-old colt broke down and was destroyed at Santa Anita last Friday, said Wednesday that jockey Corey Nakatani made an “honest mistake,” but should be fined for whipping the horse after he crossed the finish line.

While the three stewards at Santa Anita planned to conduct a hearing into the death of Tillie’s Joy in the next two weeks, Nakatani said that he did nothing wrong and his attorney, trainer Darrell Vienna, said that the colt had a history of unsoundness before Mitchell began training him.

“We have reason to believe that the horse’s connections had been advised not to run the horse because of preexisting conditions,” Vienna said. “Corey rode the horse before, and he said that the colt behaved differently this time.”


Tillie’s Joy, the 19-10 favorite in the six-furlong race for $32,000 claiming horses, finished sixth and then, based on reviews of the race tape, appeared to be struck four times by Nakatani’s whip as he galloped out around the clubhouse turn. Tillie’s Joy broke down as he was being returned to the unsaddling area.

Charles Ottaviano, a Van Nuys bar operator who bred and owned Tillie’s Joy, said that his horse was sound going into Friday’s race. B. William Bell, a state veterinarian who conducts race-day examinations of all horses scheduled to run, said that Tillie’s Joy was considered “racing sound.”

“One of my other trainers said that the horse might develop a tendon problem,” Ottaviano said. “This was before Mike got him. It was then that we laid up the horse for a month because we thought we might have been training him too hard.”

Tillie’s Joy was trained by Kevin Stroud when he finished sixth in his first start, at Fairplex Park on Sept. 15. That day his forelegs were wrapped in front bandages, equipment sometimes used to give a horse extra support.

Mitchell said that after Tillie’s Joy went to his barn, the colt was checked repeatedly for tendon problems and nothing could be found.

Under Mitchell, who has trained for Ottaviano for eight years, Tillie’s Joy made one start before last week, finishing a close second in a maiden race for $32,000 claimers at Hollywood Park on Dec. 3. That was the first time Nakatani rode him.


Tillie’s Joy was destroyed after fracturing the cannon bone in his left foreleg. Ottaviano, who has no other horses in training, said that Tillie’s Joy was not insured. Asked if he thought Nakatani’s whipping contributed to the horse’s breakdown, Ottaviano said, “We don’t know enough yet. Let’s see what the board [of stewards] says, and go from there. I don’t blame Mike Mitchell for what happened.”

Nakatani, 25, just completed his best year, winning 52 stakes races, more than 300 races overall and riding horses that earned about $15 million. He finished second to Jerry Bailey, who led the money list with more than $16 million.

Nakatani rides more than half of Mitchell’s horses. Mitchell said that Nakatani will continue riding for him, and in fact they teamed to win a race at Santa Anita Wednesday.

“I think I know where Corey was coming from,” Mitchell said. “He was thinking about routing [running at longer distances] with this horse, and he galloped him out fast to see if he could put wind into him. That’s not a bad plan. But if a horse is tired, more stress on a horse can turn a minor problem into a big problem.

“If the horse had an injury, it was something that Corey didn’t feel. Sometimes riders tap a horse past the wire, just to keep them going. But Corey got into this horse real hard, and that was wrong. I think he made an honest mistake. The stewards should look at the race, and then fine him, to show that they mean business.”

Both Mitchell and Nakatani said that the jockey didn’t strike Tillie’s Joy any place but in the shoulder area.


“I conducted myself professionally,” Nakatani said. “I didn’t strike the horse out of anger. And I didn’t hit him on the head or the face.”

Nakatani referred specific questions about the race to Vienna. On the race tape, Tillie’s Joy appeared to be drifting to the right, away from the inner rail, and Nakatani was hitting him right-handed, a tactic that might keep him running straight.

California Horse Racing Board rules on the use of whips are ambiguous. In one place, they say that a jockey is prohibited from whipping a horse “when the horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained its maximum placing.” In another section, the rules say that a correct use of the whip is “as an aid to maintain a horse running straight.”

Fines for jockeys who use whips improperly are frequently less than $1,000.

“Not many jockeys go through their careers without getting fined for a whip violation,” said Pete Pedersen, who will be one of the stewards presiding at the Nakatani hearing. “There are no guidelines regarding penalties. There can be ramifications, and we’ll have to weigh the testimony and see where this case fits in.”

Several horsemen at Santa Anita came to Nakatani’s defense.

“As unseemly and tragic as Corey’s use of the whip appears to be, he couldn’t have broken the horse’s leg by using the whip if he tried,” veterinarian Rick Arthur said. “No one could.”

Trainer Jenine Sahadi has used Nakatani to ride Lit De Justice, a hard-to-handle stakes-winning sprinter.


“On a bad day, Corey is a better rider than many jockeys on a good day,” Sahadi said. “He’s never rough with a horse. And Lit De Justice, for all the tricks he pulled, would be enough to test anybody’s patience.”

The stewards scheduled a hearing for a week from today, but Vienna said that he would ask for a postponement, possibly until Jan. 19.