06/27/2005 11:00PM

Coa coaxes himself out of his shell

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While talent was never an issue, Eibar Coa's ability to communicate with trainers was. And he knew it.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Fearless on horseback, Eibar Coa was fearful when dealing with horsemen. Overcoming that apprehension has enabled Coa's talent to come to the fore this summer at Belmont Park, where he has recorded the second most wins while riding against the toughest jockey colony in the nation.

After enduring a 0-for-40 slump earlier in the meet, Coa has reversed fortunes, winning 20 races from his last 66 mounts here since June 12. Last Saturday, he won four races for the third time in seven Belmont cards. His 36 wins at the meet are second only to Edgar Prado, who, with four weeks remaining, appears uncatchable with 52 winners.

A leading rider in south Florida as well as Monmouth Park, Coa has twice tried to make it in New York, only to leave. While talent was never an issue, Coa's ability to communicate with trainers was. And he knew it.

"I have been very shy starting conversations with people," said Coa, a 34-year-old native of Venezuela who has excellent command of the English language. "My first reaction is they don't want to talk with me or they won't answer me back. So it was hard for me to start a conversation. I felt stupid doing it. Now, I decided I got to get that out of my mind. . . . It's a different reaction this time, everybody's happy to talk to me. Having a conversation, it just feels different."

Coa, who began riding in the U.S. in 1993, also had to deal with a perception that he didn't always try his hardest. Coa admitted there were times when he didn't persevere on some horses for fear of injury.

"I heard the complaint that I wasn't riding horses all the way to the wire," Coa said. "But I try to explain I've been riding [at] those lower-level racetracks, and a lot of bad horses that for the safety of the horse and safety of myself, yes, I protected each other. But I've been proving since I've been in New York that I've been trying hard every single race. It's different kind of horses. One thing I like riding in New York is if you don't ride the best horse in the race you still feel you have a good horse."

Coa has been riding many good horses at this meet. He won the Grade 2 Shuvee aboard Society Selection, just missed taking the Grade 3 Hill Prince on Prince Rahy, and has a promising 2-year-old in Moon's Halo, a first-out winner on June 19 who earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. He is the regular rider of Eddington, with whom he won last month's Grade 1 Pimlico Special and who will be favored in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Suburban Handicap, the centerpiece race of a stakes-filled holiday weekend at Belmont.

Mark Hennig, the trainer of Eddington, has been a longtime supporter of Coa in both south Florida and New York. Hennig said he believes Coa may have been trying too hard to please the connections of horses, rather than simply doing the job.

"I think it's a matter of not so much shyness but just the confidence that you do belong, and you can say what you really feel rather than trying to sugarcoat it because you're afraid you're going to make somebody angry or lose the mount or whatever," Hennig said. "The sooner these jocks have the confidence to really speak what they feel, it's more helpful to the owner, the trainer, and everybody."

Coa said he believes hiring a local agent, Matt Muzikar, has played an integral part in his success. For eight years, time spent mostly in Florida, Coa was represented by Joe Ferrer. While Coa had success for New York horsemen during Gulfstream, some of those trainers did not support him back in New York. Full-time New York horsemen did not always reach out for Coa, either. At this meet, Coa has ridden winners for 23 trainers, including four each for year-round New York horsemen Gary Contessa and Dominic Galluscio.

"Having a local agent from New York is a very big thing," Coa said.

Coa and Ferrer split in November when Ferrer began working for Rafael Bejarano. At this past Gulfstream meet, Coa was represented by Richie DePass, who in New York - where agents may only represent one journeyman rider - works for Cornelio Velasquez.

Two months ago, Coa hired Muzikar because he was planning to return to Monmouth Park, where he won riding titles in 2001 and 2002 and was the leading stakes rider last summer. As the agent for Shaun Bridgmohan, however, Muzikar had many New York connections. After Coa won seven races in Belmont's opening week and with trainers encouraging him to stay, Coa remained in New York.

"It's one thing when they say it, it's another when they back you up, and they've all backed us up," Muzikar said. "He's a fantastic rider, smart and very articulate. He's aggressive and he's strong. He belongs here and I think the trainers know that."

"You got to get these riders when they're trying hard and they're in a good frame of mind," Galluscio said. "He's a fine young rider and I'm happy to have him anytime I can get him."

Now, Coa considers himself a New York rider. He plans to sell his home by the Jersey Shore and buy one near Belmont Park. Coa is also looking forward to riding the Saratoga meet, where he won 18 races in 2003.

"There's nothing better than New York, so I'm just working harder than ever just to prove to everybody that I was right - that I could make it," Coa said. "I know for sure that it's going to work."