Eibar Coa likes to fight, he’ll tell you that. If he wasn’t a jockey, he’d be an Ultimate Fighter, he’ll tell you that too. He rides aggressively, he’ll tell you that and you’ll see that.
Coa grew up fighting in the streets of Monagas, Venezuela. He calls it the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn. He learned martial arts, scrapped when he had to defend himself or his friends and eventually stumbled upon jockey school and got out. He arrived in Miami in 1996. Coa got a ride in a taxi, asked for the racetrack and arrived at Gulfstream Park with two bags and his life savings of $3,500. His first agent happened to pick him up at the stable gate and eventually he clawed his way to New York. Last year’s leading jockey in New York ranks fourth in the current Saratoga standings. Ten wins after 13 days, a couple of stakes victories and one suspension. Par for the course. Win and sin.
“I’ve been aggressive all my life, it’s not just about riding. I came from a very poor country, I used to fight almost every day for my life. Street fights. I grew up doing that. I grew up with that attitude,” Coa said. “It’s an everyday battle where I’m from, you learn to come back the next day and face the same guys. Every time you go out, people pick on you, you can’t let yourself down. You’ve got to either fight or run away and I’m not a guy that’s going to run away.”
Coa tried the same approach when he arrived in Miami. Cross him and he’ll fight you. He got caught in three fights and said they cost him nearly $50,000. Money calls – he’s not that much of a fighter now.
“Being here I learned a lot, I came here and I started fighting people and I got in trouble, it cost me a lot of money, that money taught me a lot,” Coa said. “That taught me to try and work with those situations. I don’t fight any more, but I kept that attitude riding.”
Coa won two races Wednesday for his main client, trainer Barclay Tagg. The former steeplechase jockey likes aggressive riding and Coa provides it in plain sight.
“Coa’s a really good rider, we’ve had a lot of luck with Coa,” Tagg said. “We like him as a person, he’s got courage – he’s not going to chicken out at a small hole to go through.”
Coa hits holes like Tiger Woods on Sundays.
He makes definitive moves, darting in and out of traffic and doesn’t apologize when he stops a favorite or almost puts a horse through a hedge, like he did in the Lake George opening week. Aboard My Princess Jess for Tagg, Coa bulled his way through horses, nearly dropping the tiring Stealin’ Kisses. He got suspended for his ride that day, but he got the money, that’s all he worries about.
“When your mind is so competitive, you don’t think about consequences, you just want to win. That’s me. I want to get there first, then I’ll see what happens. That’s my mind when I’m riding,” Coa said. “I don’t think about what will happen if I do this and that. I’ll do whatever it takes to win. You don’t want to die, you don’t want to get in those situations, but sometimes it happens.”
Coa would rather make the definitive wrong move than the tepid right move. It’s not a style that wins you friends in the jocks’ room.
Good race riding is about flying closer and closer to the sun but never getting burned.
“If you think about it, it’s worse. Then you’ll stay back, you won’t win and then you think about what you should have done,” Coa said. “If something happens, you know what, I won. If I did something wrong, well I’m sorry, but I did win for you. The other way, I don’t want that question. I do what I have to do to win.”
Coa derailed Kent Desormeaux’s plans going into the first turn of the Belmont Stakes when he maneuvered Tale Of Ekati like a blocking sled, hemming Big Brown into the first turn, then keeping him wide all the way down the backside. It was Coa being Coa. Don’t expect an apology.
“I ride a race to beat the favorite. If I’ve got one, two, three horses, I’m riding my race to beat those three horses. I do what I have to do to win; some people like that, some people don’t,” Coa said, nonchalantly. “I’m not going to change. I’m not doing anything illegal. I’ve learned how to do my things in line, yes, it’s a fine line. I ride my race, take my consequences. If I do something wrong and I have to pay, I’ll do it. Every time I get days, I tell the guys when I’m going to take them, I never complain about nothing. I think the attitude is going to stay with me. It’s been 15 years, I’d say I’ve got another 10 years to go, it’s not worth changing.”
No, that’s one thing that isn’t happening. Coa won’t be a finalist for the George Woolf Award.
“I enjoy life, people get upset at me, I say I’m sorry just to make them feel better,” Coa said. “If they don’t really like me, there’s nothing I can do for that, but I’ll always try and get along. I won’t kiss anybody’s ass, I never have and I never will.”