Updated on 09/16/2011 7:47AM

Coa: Reckless rider or whipping boy?


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Ever since he arrived in the United States from Venezuela to launch his career as a jockey, Eibar Coa has displayed great talent coupled with a great propensity for getting himself into trouble. Both sides of Coa have been conspicuous at Gulfstream Park this winter.

The 30-year-old ranks among the top race-winning jockeys here, but for one of his rides the Gulfstream stewards threw the book at him. While rough riding is typically penalized with a seven-day suspension, Coa received an extraordinary 30-day ban for his actions in the Fort Lauderdale Handicap on Jan. 26. The circumstances of that race have been the talk of the track, causing people to debate whether Coa is a malicious jockey or the stewards' whipping boy.

Riding Mr. Livingston in the $100,000 stakes, Coa twice had encounters with Jerry Bailey, who was aboard the even-money favorite, Del Mar Show. The field was tightly bunched at the first turn, with Bailey on the rail and Coa just outside him, and Bailey was squeezed back. Coa said, "There was not enough room to be comfortable," and the films do not show conclusively whether he shut off his rival. That incident probably would have been forgotten if it were not for the events on the backstretch.

The leader, TV Sports Director, was racing away from the rail. Coa was behind him, also off the rail, and Bailey was behind Coa, near the fence. Bailey saw the opening inside TV Sports Director and accordingly urged Del Mar Show to make a run for the lead. As Bailey's horse accelerated, Coa said, "My choice was to go with him or to take back." Coa went for the hole, too, and as he did so he cut in front of Bailey, who was forced to slam on the brakes.

The incident did not affect the outcome; Del Mar Show overcame all of the trouble and rallied to win, while Coa's horse, Mr. Livingston, finished fifth. But the matter was not over as far as Bailey was concerned. He declared after the race: "I not only had to overcome the other horses, I had to overcome Coa, too. He was riding me and not his race."

Bailey phoned the stewards to complain about Coa's reckless ride, as did Bill Mott, the trainer of Del Mar Show.

Summoned before the stewards, the jockey argued that he was just trying to beat Bailey to the opening on the rail. He probably expected a seven-day suspension. However, he was stunned when he was given 30 days - a penalty typically imposed when a rider intentionally endangers the life and limb of others.

At a Wednesday appeal hearing at Gulfstream, track president Scott Savin ordered the case remanded to the stewards for a second hearing, which was to be held in the next 10 days.

Much of the racing community was surprised by the ruling, too. Did the offense justify such a harsh penalty? Were the stewards swayed by the reputations of Bailey and Mott, both Hall of Famers? Or was this an outgrowth of their problems with Coa that date from 1993?

When Coa arrived at Hialeah Park that year, his papers showed that he had won only 11 races in Venezuela, making him an apprentice entitled to a seven-pound weight allowance. When he won seven straight races, displaying considerable maturity in the saddle, state steward Walter Blum was highly suspicious. "If he's an apprentice," Blum said at the time, "then I'm a jet pilot."

He confronted Coa and told him: "It's apparent you have more experience than a seven-pound bug [apprentice] rider. If that's a fact, you should open up and tell us."

Coa denied everything, but evidence eventually surfaced that Venezuelan officials had falsified the riding records of Coa and six other jockeys, a scandal that was dubbed Saddlegate. Coa was suspended for a year.

Coa sat out the suspension in Venezuela and returned to Florida to resume his career. "After what had happened," he said, "I wanted to show that I was a professional."

He immediately captured the riding title at Hialeah in 1995 and proved that he is a top-notch rider, with or without a weight allowance.

But his relationship with the Florida stewards has remained uneasy, and the officials have slapped him with numerous penalties for rough riding. They suspended him for 20 days after he had an altercation with jockey Shane Sellers ("a mild-mannered guy," in Blum's description).

Coa believes that the stewards apply a tougher standard to him than anybody else. "Any close contact is going to get me in trouble," he said. "They never give me the benefit of the doubt." Their issues came to a head after the Fort Lauderdale Handicap.

Asked why this infraction merited a 30-day suspension, Blum said Coa had allowed his horse to impede Bailey's mount on both the first turn and the backstretch. "In the opinion of Bailey," Blum said, "it was willful. In the opinion of Mott, it was willful. In the opinion of all three stewards, it was willful. And when [rough riding] becomes willful, it's extremely dangerous."

I told Blum that many racing people believe that the personalities influenced the decision, and that if the roles were reversed - if Bailey had shut off Coa - the stewards would have taken no action. "You're wrong," Blum insisted. "Our job is to uphold the rules." But he said the question was academic: "Bailey wouldn't do that."

Blum's response suggests what troubles neutral observers about the stewards' ruling. If one watches the films of the Fort Lauderdale Handicap without knowing anything about the personalities involved, one sees this: The jockey on Mr. Livingston makes an aggressive move trying to beat a rival to a hole on the rail, and he is too aggressive, committing a foul. But his intent was to seize an advantage and win the race. Any willful maliciousness must be divined otherwise.

Certainly, stewards are reasonable to consider a jockey's past record, but is it reasonable always to assume the best intentions from certain jockeys and the worst from others? Coa has surely sinned in the past, but the stewards appear to have condemned him to eternal perdition.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post