07/05/2012 12:46PM

Keiber Coa presses on a year after father's fateful spill

Courtesy of the Coa family
Keiber Coa (right) with his father, Eibar, on graduation day at Laffit Pincay Jockey School in December, 10 months after Eibar was nearly paralyzed in a riding accident.

In Panama City on the early evening of Feb. 18, 2011, Keiber Coa sat in his bedroom after a day spent at the famed Laffit Pincay Jockey School. He had been enrolled only a week. It was his first time away from home, he was nervous and scared, and he didn’t know anybody. But this was what he had decided − to be a jockey, like his father, Eibar, who had won more than 4,000 races and riding titles from New York to Florida and was then riding at Gulfstream Park.

His phone rang, and Keiber answered. It was his stepmother, Rebeca.

“Your dad got hurt,” she said. “We don’t know how bad it is.”

Keiber hurriedly opened his computer and watched the replay of the sixth race from Gulfstream. Five furlongs on the turf. The full-view replay didn’t show anything. But the head-on did. The accident had happened moments after the finish.

It looked so innocent. Runner-up Precious Lady fell in an instant, throwing jockey Paco Lopez. Coa, aboard trailing Lady Chesterfield, couldn’t avoid them. Coa tumbled right over onto the ground, headfirst, not violently but almost casually. There was no warning. Both horses would get up on their own, but their riders did not.

Keiber contacted family members and looked for flights home. The rest is something of a blur. Did he go to school the next day? He doesn’t remember. But before long he was bedside after his father had undergone six hours of surgery to repair the C-4 vertebra in his neck. Keiber’s own fledgling career crystallized.

“That was very, very tough for him,” Eibar said. “He saw me in the hospital at my worst condition right after surgery. The doctor came with notice that he didn’t think I’d ever walk again.”

When Eibar came to, he asked his teenage son what he wanted to do. He would support him either way. Seeing his father like this, did Keiber still want to be a jockey?

“My hope was that he would say no, and he would stay home and go to school,” Eibar said. “You don’t want that for anybody.”

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On a recent morning at Monmouth Park, Keiber Coa, 19, sat at a table in a quiet section of the backstretch kitchen. Sixteen months had passed since his father’s accident. A helmet embossed with his initials, “KC,” rested on the table. Gloves sat in his back pocket, and on his small shoulders a black vest hung over a yellow polo shirt. He is a jockey.

In fact, he is the hot bug boy at Monmouth. A quiet start to the meet gave way to three wins on both June 3 and June 8, and now a steady flow of mounts greet him. His pedigree helps; his father conquered these parts with riding titles in 2001 and 2002. But this isn’t the Ivy League; there are no legacy admissions to the jockeys’ room. Trainers wouldn’t ride the young apprentice if he couldn’t cut it.

Still, there is nothing easy about this. Keiber rides with the specter of his father’s accident over every trip to the track. He might not see it, since the fearlessness of youth blinds. But his father does.

Eibar’s recovery has been remarkable. Initially designated a quadriplegic, his paralysis proved temporary. It took him a month and a half to regain some motion, and after two months he took his first steps. He can walk on his own now, and with his wife by his side, he occasionally drives. At 41, he hungers for a normal way of life.

His days are occupied by doctors’ appointments; some are better than others. His coordination still lacks, and he moves slowly on his right side. He concedes the toughest part is psychological − the depression and frustration felt after a life of activity and his relentless mental loop rewinding those fateful moments.

“I remember everything,” he said. “I’m mad about it. I wish I had fallen and lost my consciousness and woken up in the hospital after surgery. That accident is in my mind every day. Every time I watch a race it runs through my mind. I didn’t want to go out that way.

“I broke every single bone in my body before,” he said. “But nothing ever stopped me from coming back. In this case I was so mad I wasn’t going to come back. My recovery was aggressive, but it has stopped at 70 percent. I still had hope I was going to come back. But that hope is closing very slowly.”

His voice cracked. “Being conscious and remembering everything . . . hitting the ground and what happened after and the conversations I had at the hospital . . . that makes me sad,” he said. “I wish that memory would stop so I don’t feel this bad.”

These are feelings Eibar has held back from Keiber. He wants to be strong for him and impart his knowledge. They are a team; they speak on the phone every day.

“Every race Keiber rides I watch it live − from home or from the track or from the computer,” he said.

In part, this is so he can offer feedback later, but more so because he is too nervous to miss one, as if he could somehow stop misfortune striking his son.

“I feel very confused when I watch,” Eibar said. “I don’t do anything. I don’t make any faces. My family watching might cheer. But I hold my feelings inside. I’m worried from gate to wire. In my heart I’m happy that he’s doing what he wants to do.”

Keiber is soft spoken and shy, like his father once was, and he looks like Eibar, especially in the eyes. He is 5 feet 2 inches tall. He has soft features, an innocent face on which a pleasant smile occasionally passes, but when asked to talk about his father’s accident he grows more reserved. He looks away and uses different degrees of “tough” to describe his feelings. It’s hard to expect more from a teenager attempting to discuss a moment of deep personal trauma involving a parent.

“It was a tough decision for me,” Keiber said of continuing in this profession. “He saw me really getting into it. He knew I didn’t want to give it up. I was so into it. I wanted to keep on going and work even harder.”

After he graduated high school in the summer of 2010, Keiber began a grueling exercise routine to lose weight and committed himself to learning the rudiments of riding from his father. Then he found himself at the riding school whose graduates ranged from Hall of Fame riders such as Laffit Pincay and Jorge Velasquez to current stars such as Jose Lezcano and Eddie Castro. He was in the cradle of the best jockeys in the world, as they like to say in Panama. He did not want to turn back.

Keiber rode his first professional race in December at Gulfstream and won his first race in March at Santa Anita. His career tally through July 1 was 13 wins, 18 seconds, and 19 thirds from 145 starts. He first got on a horse only two years ago. A quick study and an eager listener, he shows proper balance on a horse, the ability to switch sticks, and a proficiency in breaking quickly from the gate. These were weaknesses a few months ago.

“Keiber has a good foundation,” said trainer Tim Hills, who encouraged the elder Coa to relocate to Monmouth Park from Calder in 2001. “He has a really good attitude. He’s kind of quiet. You’d think he might be timid, but he’s not. He’s paying attention.”

Like Hills, several trainers who rode Eibar have given Keiber the leg up. Ed Plesa Jr., a regular in South Florida and New Jersey, is one. He offers one attribute in which the son will be hard-pressed to match the father.

“Eibar was very, very competitive,” Plesa said. “He’s as competitive a jock as I’ve been around − maybe too much so. Eibar took it to an extreme.”

Eibar came from a different place than his son. He grew up hustling in the streets of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, selling newspapers for a buck, and he entered the riding school there at 17 by a strange twist of fate. He had never seen a horse up close, and it took him two months to get over his fear of riding one. His aggressiveness came from his hunger for a better life.

“We try to give our kids everything we can, so they don’t have the same needs we had,” Eibar said. “Keiber may not be hungry in the same way I was. But he definitely wants to make it. As long as a rider wins races, we get hungrier. We like the sensation of winning. We like everything around the winning of races. He will be hungry to win.”

After Keiber’s first three-bagger June 3, Eibar sensed this in his son.

“How does it feel?” he asked his son.

“It feels great,” Keiber told him.

“Good,” Eibar said. “You can have more of these days if you work harder. Now the next thing you do is go to the track tomorrow morning and work horses.”

Becoming a jockey was never Keiber’s desire, nor did his father push him to follow in his footprints.

Keiber did inherit his father’s athleticism. Besides playing other sports as a boy in Venezuela, Eibar was also a judo champion. He came to the U.S. in 1993 and immediately became South Florida’s hottest jockey, but he was suspended and forced to return to Venezuela the following year after stewards learned Venezuelan officials had provided false records qualifying Coa and other young riders for apprentice weight allowances. Coa returned permanently in 1996.

Keiber moved here with his father and his mother, Kathy, when he was 2. By age 5 he was on a baseball diamond. As he grew up, most nights of the week were devoted to playing baseball or pickup games of basketball with friends. The only time he went to the races was in the summer to watch his father ride. But it didn’t grab him.

“I always liked the sport,” Keiber said, by which he meant he didn’t have anything particularly against it. “It was not my thing, though.”

But when he didn’t make the high school baseball team − his ability was overshadowed by his size − his athleticism pointed elsewhere.

“I told him he had to do something where his size could help him,” Eibar said. “But I never expected him to say he wanted to ride. I doubted he was going to like it.”

Riding then, as Keiber looked at it another way, was the only sport open to him.

“It seemed fun,” he said.

Still, his father cautioned him. He also questioned whether Keiber could lose the weight. He weighed 126 pounds, and Eibar told him he’d have to drop to 110.

“He knew how hard this job was,” Eibar said. “There are ups and downs. More downs than ups. He would see me upset and mad three or four times a week.”

Already athletic, Keiber relished it. They lived on a small farm in Davie with stables and a paddock behind the house. Eibar rented out some of the stalls and kept a few horses of his own. There, father and son fastened around the same mission. Instructions commenced.

“He’d tell me how to go up and down, the right rhythm,” Keiber said. “How to hold the whip. How to hold the reins.

“It was kind of stressful,” he said. “My dad knows everything.”

This training began after Keiber graduated high school. He began reducing his weight, watching videos with his father, and walking horses at Calder. That fall, his father won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Big Drama, the crowning achievement of a career in which he could look forward to more great moments.

Eibar had won title after title in South Florida, followed by Monmouth, and then New York. In 2006 and 2007 he finished seventh in earnings nationally. In 2006, he became only the fourth jockey in history to win 300 races in a calendar year at NYRA tracks.

But New York never felt like home for Coa. He flew home every Sunday night to see his family and returned on Wednesday morning. He didn’t want to miss Keiber’s baseball games or uproot his family. He also had a young daughter, Sienna, who is now 4.

“I used to joke about that with my family,” Eibar said. “I’d say I live in Florida, and I work in New York. Maybe that took me away from reaching a higher stage of my career. If that meant giving away horses or winners, I gave that away. But I was happy. I don’t regret that. I told Keiber family is the only thing we are going to have.”

Eibar had returned to Florida year-round by the time Keiber was ready to go to Panama. However, the weeks before Keiber left and before his father’s accident proved tumultuous. On Jan. 31, Coa was arrested and spent part of the day in jail on a domestic battery charge after his wife, Rebeca, told police Coa punched her in the face after returning from a club intoxicated early that morning. Rebeca did not pursue formal charges; she and Eibar have since patched up their marriage, and she has been at his side throughout his recovery.

Eibar chose the Pincay School for his son because of its track record and because he wanted him to see the deprivations the young apprentices face there. He asked the instructors and trainers to treat his son the same as his classmates.

“Kids there come from the street, and they don’t have anything, and they found the track,” Eibar said. “They don’t have boots. They don’t have helmets. I told him, ‘They will be better than you. They will be hungrier than you.’ ”

That said, Keiber had the advantages of an education − two, in fact − one from an American school and the other from his father. But his name would only get him so far.

Yet as he entered riding school, Keiber began visualizing a dream he might soon touch.

“It was always exciting when my cousin Danny Coa and my father were in the same race,” he said. “My dream was one day for the three of us to ride in the same race.”

He looked away sadly. “That dream can’t happen now.”

But in Keiber’s decision to return to Panama after his dad’s accident, Eibar saw a strength in him he might have previously overlooked.

“That kind of made him stronger,” Eibar said. “You never see your kid as a grown man. But that was a grown-man decision.”

So in the spring of 2011, father and son set out on different challenges with the same conclusion − Keiber to ride his first race and his father to stand there at the track and watch it. Eibar says his family was the only thing that kept him going. On Dec. 17, 2011, he walked around the Gulfstream Park jockeys’ room as his son picked up where he had tragically left off.

“I was nervous the day before,” Keiber said. “I was nervous when I woke up that day. I was nervous in the post parade. But when we went into the gate it went away.”
His father resumed from there.

“I was worried,” Eibar said. “I was more happy for him. I didn’t want to be greedy; I didn’t want to take away his happiness. I didn’t want to show my worry, and I wanted to put on my happy face.”

Asked if there is a rider he models himself after, Keiber responds:

“I like my dad. I like how he rides. He is the smartest rider I’ve ever seen. When we go over my races in the morning, he describes how each race is going to go. Eighty percent of the time he’s right.”

Eibar was taken aback with fatherly pride when he was told this.

“When he was learning I told him that everyone has his own style. I never pushed him to have one style. He actually adopted that himself. I don’t know if he did that for me or he came to it on his own. But that makes me happy.”

Watching Keiber ride presents uncanny similarities to his father. His back is arched the same, in an almost straight line across. His hands quietly hold a horse’s reins high up the neck. He uses the whip the same, a sudden snap to a horse’s rear. There is a pleasing fluidity to it all.

Upon reflection, it is also bittersweet. One day Keiber will fall. And his father will be watching, and the defenses he has erected within himself will be tested.

“I tell Keiber accidents happen,” Eibar said. “You do have to know that it will happen. You have to be strong that when it does happen you will come back. I talk to him about being safe. The only thing we can wish is that it won’t be as bad as what happened to me.”

For now, Keiber rides free of burden. He is more outgoing and also at ease in the jockeys’ room. Two Fridays ago, he arrived there with a dance card of six mounts. The night before, the Miami Heat had won the NBA championship; he hung Dwyane Wade’s jersey above his locker.

“The champions right there,” he said proudly.

After the first race, in which he got the most out of a 60-1 shot to finish third, he alone watched the replay on a television. All the other jockeys had sat at their lockers or began changing for the next race. He had a break until the fifth race, so he grabbed his program and sat down at a table by himself to study his forthcoming races. Much like his father had in his own time, he mostly kept to himself.

By 3 o’clock, the sky darkened and storm clouds rolled in. It was a scary scene, as rain slowly appeared and the sound of thunder approached. It looked more like dusk. Anticipating muddy conditions on the track, the jockeys began to change into thicker pants. Taking his cue from the journeymen, Keiber abided. He was riding the next race.

He took his helmet and saddle and silks and stepped onto the scale. As he walked into the paddock, carrying the confident air of a rider who had been through this before, you could make out the name stitched onto the back of this pair of pants. It read: Eibar Coa.