07/24/2001 12:00AM

Coa gives Bravo a run for his money

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The battle between eight-time riding champion Joe Bravo and Monmouth newcomer Eibar Coa for top jockey has lived up to its early billing.

By this time in past meets, Bravo has had the riding title practically sewn up. But this year, Coa - in his first riding stint at Monmouth - has met Bravo stride for stride. Both are up for the challenge.

"When I decided to come here, one of my first goals was to challenge for the title," Coa said. "I'm happy to be competing with Joe, and it is going to be very hard to beat him in his own house. I will just keep working hard and trying to do things right."

Coa, who has dominated the south Florida circuit for a number of years, started the meet strongly with multiple three-win days. He picked up first-call mounts for the leading barns of Tim Hills and Todd Pletcher, and recently he has been aboard talented 2-year-olds and stakes horses from the barn of Ben Perkins Jr., second in the trainer standings to J. Willard Thompson.

However, three weeks into the meet, Bravo began to distance himself from Coa, leading by double-digit wins until the last few weeks. Coa steadily made up ground, and entering Saturday the two were deadlocked with 43 wins apiece. Bravo scored on four winners Saturday, and Coa bagged two. After winning one apiece Sunday, Bravo leads 48 to 46 with 32 days remaining in the 72-day meet.

"If you put up the purses, the good riders will come," said Bravo. "The big difference has been the three bug boys [Jorge Duarte, Julian Pimentel, and Victor Carrero]. They have been winning a lot, and leaving less mounts for the journeymen. I'd usually be [well] in front at this point, but it has turned out to be a tight race. I'm really enjoying the meet and having a great summer."

Watch Hills horses going to turf

If Tim Hills is switching a horse from dirt to turf, it's worth a play.

Hills's training specialty seems to be that angle, as has been evident this meet. Last Friday, Joe's Son Joey took the five-furlong turf feature, making his first start on the grass after taking on tough dirt competition in the past. Hills placed I'm Sentimental, also a dirt sprinter, on the turf for the first time in the Bet Twice Stakes, and he finished second to graded-stakes-placed Sardaukar. He started H.M.S. Jackson - second in the Bernie Dowd Handicap Sunday - on the turf once, at Hialeah in the winter, and he won.

Hills, third in the trainer standings with 14 wins, half of which have come on the turf, wins 16 percent of the time with his first-time turf starters, and offers a high return on investment of $3.82.

"People say, 'How do you do it?' and I tell them I don't know sometimes," Hills said. "A lot of times it's just a guess; training horses to some extent is trial and error. But a little secret that I have learned is that horses don't have to be dead fit to run on the turf. If a horse has problems, you can finesse him along on the turf. You don't have to train horses as hard to run well on the turf."

Mojica shaken but not hurt

Rafael Mojica Jr., thrown to the track when his mount fell in the ninth race Friday, escaped serious injury, his agent reported Saturday morning.

Mojica, 31, was riding My Josie when that horse was checked in tight quarters at the eighth pole and fell. Canyon de Chelly, Felix Ortiz aboard, could not avoid the fallen horse and barely missed stepping on Mojica.

Mojica was taken to Monmouth Medical Center, in Long Branch, for X-rays, but was released after it was determined he had suffered no fractured bones.

"He was shaken up and had a few cuts and bruises and he's going to be very sore," said his agent, Bruce Golub, "but nothing was broken. He was very, very lucky, thank God."

Mojica took off his mounts Saturday and Sunday, and will not ride on Wednesday.

"After that, it will be up to Rafael to tell me how he feels and if he's ready to go again," Golub said.

Mojica has ridden well this meet, especially lately, with a record of nine wins from 99 mounts through Friday.

* If Indy Bird runs in the eighth race Thursday, she should be favored to win her second straight. Indy Bird, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, is nominated to the Grade 2 Monmouth Oaks Saturday, which would be her first graded stakes try. If she starts in the allowance, she will break from post 2 with Jose Velez Jr. up. Indy Bird was second to graded-stakes winner Silver Tornado in her first start here, and then appreciated the stretch out to one mile, the distance of Thursday's race, in a victory against allowance foes July 4.