11/04/2011 4:14PM

Breeders' Cup: Coa defying odds after riding accident


LOUISVILLE, Ky. − When Eibar Coa guided Big Drama to victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, it was a surprise. When Coa walks into the paddock to watch Big Drama get saddled for the 2011 Sprint, it was a miracle.

Coa was scheduled to return to the scene of his finest hour Saturday, less than nine months since he was left temporarily paralyzed from the neck down after fracturing the C-4 vertebra in his neck in a riding mishap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 18. The original prognosis from Coa’s doctors was poor, but he has beaten the odds and is on the road to what he hopes will be a complete recovery.

“After my surgery, immediately following the accident, I was still designated a quadriplegic, and the doctors didn’t give me much chance of recovering,” Coa, a 40 year old native of Venezuela, said Friday. “But I never gave up hope. It took me about a month and one half to begin to get some motion back and after two months I was very hopeful I’d be able to walk again. Right now I’ve recovered about 70-80 percent of my normal function, but I’m still working on it and attending rehab in Florida for two hours a day.”

Coa said he can clearly recall the incident on the Gulfstream turf course that resulted in his injuries. Coa was aboard Precious Lady, who clipped heels with another horse moments after pulling up following the sixth race.

“I never lost consciousness at any time,” Coa said. “Sometimes I look back on it and try to think if there was anything I could have done so things might have turned out differently. But I’ve pretty much come to accept the fact that it happened and that I’m lucky just to be able to stand up and move again. I don’t consider myself a victim but a survivor, and I truly believe it’s a miracle that I’ve been able to make this type of recovery and that I’m able to attend the Breeders’ Cup this year.”

Coa credited his wife, Rebeca, who will be by his side in the paddock before the Sprint on Saturday, as well as his family for giving him the strength to fight his battle, especially in the first days and weeks following the incident.

“The support of my wife, who has been with me 24/7 since the first day, and my family have been the keys to my recovery for sure,” Coa said.

Coa said it will be a sentimental moment when he walks into the paddock and stands with trainer David Fawkes and owner-breeder Harold Queen alongside Big Drama before the Sprint. Coa rode one of the best races of his career, breaking Big Drama on the lead then easing him off the deeper going along the rail to register a wire to wire victory in the 2010 Sprint that propelled the south Florida based speedster to an ultimate Eclipse Award as the top sprinter of the year.

“Obviously, I’d love to be riding Big Drama on Saturday as opposed to just being there,” Coa said. “But Dave [Fawkes] has always helped me out and supported my career in the past, and being able to come here to support the team is something I really wanted to do. I saw his last work in Florida. He looks very fit, and he’s my best bet on Saturday.”

Coa said all the expenses for his trip from his home in south Florida to Louisville were picked up by the Jockeys’ Guild.

Despite the nature of his injuries and the fact he knows he’s lucky just to be able to walk again, Coa has not given up hope of returning to the saddle one day.

“In the beginning for sure, especially after I began regaining some motion, I was very hopeful I’d be able to ride again,” Coa said. “But even though I’ve made so much progress these past several months, I’m beginning to realize that window is slowly closing. My goal for this year is to be back to 100 percent. Maybe next year I’ll allow myself to start thinking about what to do with the rest of my life.”

Although it is unlikely that Coa will ride again, the family legacy is about to continue. Coa said his son Keiber, 19, is scheduled to graduate from the famous Laffit Pincay riding school in Panama on Dec. 8 and is hoping to be able to launch his riding career on the Southern California circuit this winter

“I plan to spend some time with my son once he arrives in California, and it should keep me plenty busy just coaching him for a while,” Coa said. “And I’m very excited to have a replacement in the family so soon.”