Back in 2006, Eibar Coa became only the fourth jockey to win 300 races in a single year on the NYRA circuit. That year, he won the winter and spring riding titles at Aqueduct. He even claimed a share of that fall’s Belmont riding crown, a most impressive feat given the annual strength of the Belmont jockey colony. 2006 was the first of three consecutive years in which Coa ranked in the top ten nationally in earnings. Over the past few years, he’s won such important races as the Sword Dancer Invitational, the Test Stakes, and the Donn Handicap. This past November, Coa captured a signature victory, taking the Breeders’ Cup Sprint aboard Big Drama.
But now, Eibar Coa is occupying a bed at Regional Memorial Hospital in Hallandale Beach, Florida. He is being treated for injuries that he sustained during a devastating spill during the sixth race at Gulfstream on Friday. He has already has surgery twice over the course of the past four days to try to heal the mutiple injuries he sustained in the accident -- most notably a broken C4 vertebrae -- and he is scheduled to go under the knife yet again later in the week. Though he is currently in stable condition, and is able to move his shoulders and hands, Coa is still unable to move his legs. Needless to say, his riding career is in very serious jeopardy.
Coa is a native of Venezuela, a nation that has a proud tradition of producing elite riders. Expert Venezuelan racing commentator Ramon Brito attributes this to an influx of jockeys from Chile and Argentina a few decades back.
“Back in the 60's and 70's we had many good jockeys come from Chile and Argentina,” Brito noted. “These men were a great influence on our stellar jockeys. That, and the natural talent of our riders molded what I would call the ‘Venezuelan school.’”
This school would produce some of the world’s greatest jockeys. Many of these riders remained in Venezuela to compete, but a host of others went on to practice their craft elsewhere in both North and South America. Brito cites one in particular as being the prototype of the Venezuelan jockey.
“Douglas Valiente might be the perfect example of the type of jockey this ‘school’ produced,” Brito observed. “He combined style and strength.”
Valiente blazed the trail for riders like Coa, Javier Castellano, Daniel Centeno and Ramon Dominguez, among others. Brito believes that Coa and the other modern-day Venezuelan riding stars shared Valiente’s versatility in the irons.
“Douglas was not a one-dimensional rider, and perhaps this is a trademark of Eibar’s and the other great Venezuelan jockeys. They can win either setting the pace or coming from way back.”
Several of Coa’s classic rides can be used to serve as an example of this. In the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Coa guided Big Drama to the lead, taking the race in gate-to-wire fashion. Coa used stalking tactics, on the other hand, to take the Donn Handicap in 2008. He positioned Spring at Last perfectly, giving him a dream trip about two lengths behind the lead, before making his winning move inside the quarter pole. And Coa could win from further back in the pack too, as evidenced by his victory aboard Musket Man in the 2009 Illinois Derby.
Brito believes that Coa’s combination of physical talent, patience, and intelligence, earn him a place on a list of all-time Venezuelan greats.
“He can easily be put among Venezuela's all-time best. Many young jockeys look up to him, and there are several apprentices that have aspirations of leaving to the U.S. and becoming the next Eibar Coa.”
These young jocks, and racing fans across two continents, are undoubtedly praying for the health of the original.
Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA