The toughest part of Danny Coa’s day comes after morning workouts, when he returns home to spend a few minutes with his family before signing in at the jockeys’ room.
Coa draws strength and encouragement from his wife Liduvina and their two sons – Kendry, 3, and eight-week-old Kenny Joel. But he finds it difficult separating himself from Kendry’s grasp without getting emotional.
“If I don’t come back and kiss my kids before the races, I feel real empty,” said Coa, a 30-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela. “I’m not that superstitious, but if I don’t do it, I might think I’m not going to win a race.
“But it’s tough when I go home and Kendry starts crying and saying ‘Please don’t go, daddy’ or ‘I want to go with you.’
“That’s one thing I don’t like, because I want to be close to my family,” said Coa, who also receives frequent visits from Kelsey, his 8-year-old daughter from his first marriage who lives in Kentucky.
Kendry knows that his father rides Thoroughbreds for a living, and the boy has already experienced the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of the Tampa Bay Downs jockeys’ room and the excitement in the winner’s circle. To neither parents’ surprise, he has decided he wants to become a jockey.
Just knowing the dangers involved in her husband’s profession is heart-wrenching for Liduvina, who grew up in south Florida without any exposure to horse racing. Even now, as an employee of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering who works in the licensing department at the racetrack, she can’t help getting nervous before every race.
“My heart pounds real fast, from the beginning to the end of a race,” said Liduvina, who is on maternity leave and watches the races in person, on TVG or using the www.horseracesnow.com
app on her iPad while she is on maternity leave from her job.
But seeing how Kendry idolizes his father, Liduvina can accept his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Kendry is a racetrack fanatic. He is his daddy’s No. 1 fan, encouraging him and rooting him on,” Liduvina said. “If being a jockey is what he wants to do when he gets older, we would go further with it. It would be an honor, because it is something that is in his bloodlines. Kendry’s daddy is doing it, Danny’s uncle did it and his cousin is doing it.”
IN THE BLOOD
Danny Coa’s uncle is Eibar Coa, who won 22 riding titles and more than 4,000 races – including the 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Big Drama – from 1993 until two years ago. And Eibar’s son Keiber is competing at Aqueduct in New York, already displaying many of the traits that made his father’s services coveted.
In 2011, a devastating spill just past the finish of a race at Gulfstream Park brought Eibar Coa’s career to a premature end. Temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, he underwent six hours of surgery to repair the C-4 vertebra in his neck after his accident, and doctors told him he would never walk again. At the same time, Keiber was just starting his own career.
Showing the same kind of determination that marked his riding career, Eibar Coa has made a near-miraculous recovery. He was walking again only two months after the accident, and he is able to drive. He currently lives in Miami, after a trip to Venezuela to scour the countryside for the next crop of champion jockeys from his homeland.
Keiber struggled with the decision whether he should pursue the career that nearly paralyzed his father, but being a jockey was already in his blood.
Although Danny Coa’s career path was already firmly established by then, he knows how Keiber felt.
“I was riding here when it happened,” Coa recalled, “and (fellow jockey) Willie Martinez came and told me Eibar had gone down after the wire. I got depressed real bad, especially when I went to see him in the hospital. My first reaction was I didn’t want to ride, but I realized if I told him that, he would say I should keep going. And I thought that if he saw me win races, it would make him stronger.”
Growing up with a father who was hardly ever around, adolescent Danny fell under the spell of his uncle, a star at the La Rinconada track in Caracas from the time Danny can remember.
With his mother, Yolimar, working in a restaurant and his grandmother, Elsa Monteverde, sometimes working three jobs to help support the family, Danny gravitated to the racing life. He patterned himself after uncle Eibar, who saw his potential and taught him how to make his dream a reality.
“When I was 10 or 11,” Danny recalled, “he used to dress me in boots and a helmet and take pictures and let me walk around the house so everybody could see me as a jockey. I used to put pillows on the floor and ride them like a horse, and I would hit the floor with a little stick like it was a whip. I watched my uncle race every chance I got.”
Another visitor to the house was fellow Caracas native and four-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion Daniel Centeno, a peer and close friend of Eibar Coa. Wide-eyed Danny absorbed their insights like a sponge. “He was a quick learner,” said Centeno, whose cubicle is next to Coa’s in the Oldsmar jockey room. “I could tell from the beginning he would be a good jockey.”
Danny also understood that as glamorous as race-riding looked, it was a rough, dangerous sport in which only the strong survived, let alone got a chance to move up the ladder.
“We would watch races at the house, and I would listen to everything my uncle and Daniel Centeno said,” Danny recalled. “My uncle used to scream at me when we watched tapes, ‘You see that horse over here? Don’t be here; this is where I want to see you!’
“He wanted me to be eye-to-eye with the other guy when I rode. He told me ‘Don’t give anybody an inch. When you are on the track, you don’t have no friends. You forget about me; you forget about your mother.’ ”
That approach has carried over. Although taking unnecessary chances is out of line, winning takes precedence.
“Here at Tampa, I can be talking in the room with Daniel Centeno three minutes before we go out, then we get on our horses and everything is different,” Coa said. “Horse racing is a hard, competitive sport. That’s how it is for everybody.”
Danny enrolled in jockeys’ school when he was 14, riding his first race at La Rinconada at 16. Eibar made sure he rode a lot of slow horses so he could learn how to move them up, how to switch the whip from side to side and how to judge pace.
Less than a year later, Eibar Coa told him he was ready. Danny came to the United States and won his first race at Gulfstream. Riding in south Florida and Kentucky that first year, Coa won 109 races with mount earnings of more than $1.7-million, seven months before his 18th birthday. He was the leading rider during the 1999 Turfway Park Holiday Meet.
“I guess I can call myself a natural,” he said, “because from the first day I got on a horse, that is all I wanted to do. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or scared. It was from all the practice and all my uncle taught me.”
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Danny and Liduvina met at a family gathering soon after his arrival from Venezuela, but eight years elapsed before they got together again via computer on Myspace. By that time, Danny had been married, had his daughter Kelsey and divorced.
He had also developed a reputation as a talented but moody rider who didn’t always bring his ‘A’ game to the racetrack. After posting mount earnings of more than $1.25-million in four of his first five years, having fun – or, what seemed like fun – after the races became more important than sticking to the work ethic that got him there in the first place.
From having one or two drinks at the end of the day, Coa spiraled into alcohol addiction. He went through a three-year dry spell when he survived mainly on the horses he was able to exercise in the mornings. And those weren’t many; word had gotten around that he was unreliable and only showed up to work when he felt like it. From 2005-07, he won only 47 races, his career a cautionary tale about a young phenomenon who couldn’t handle success.
Those are dark times Coa was at first reluctant to talk about. He has turned his life around since marrying Liduvina in 2008, having two sons he loves dearly and forging a healthy relationship with his daughter. He knows now that by learning from his mistakes, it becomes easier to build a solid foundation for the future.
“I started to make big money when I was real young, and at that age you think it is going to last forever,” said Coa. “I was really not lazy, but I was not doing my job the right way. I wasn’t working hard enough for the trainers and it was costing me a lot of business and a lot of mounts. You might want to get up at 5 a.m., but when you are drinking your body can’t do it.”
Soon after Kendry was born in November of 2009, Liduvina and Eibar sat down with Danny and convinced him that if he wanted to stay in racing, he needed to make changes. He enrolled in a six-month rehabilitation program that helped him discover the reasons behind his addiction and ways to avoid bad situations.
“My father was an alcoholic, and he was never around while I was growing up,” said Danny, who accepts his father’s shortcomings and occasionally talks to him via telephone. Danny also learned that while he couldn’t change the negative comments from outsiders, he could start to make amends by admitting he was human and becoming a more responsible husband and father.
“The support from my wife and uncle, and having Kendry and now Kenny Joel, is what turned me around,” Coa said. “Before, it was all about me. Now I have three kids, and it is about them.
“Not being able to work because I was drinking, not being able to make money, not being able to have anything – I was tired of that. I want to take my career serious. I’ve been riding 13 years now in this country, and I know my career hasn’t been what it should be.”
Liduvina provided Danny her love and support, and Eibar (before his accident at Gulfstream) gave him insight on how to start repairing fractures on the backside of the track.
“Eibar was a major help with discussing what we could do to help Danny out,” Liduvina said. “Even though some of the things we told Danny were negative, I tried to turn it around and make it positive, make him look at things a different way that would encourage him the most.”
Negative perceptions have a long shelf life, and Coa knows he must keep a straight path over a period of years to convince the naysayers and fulfill his own ambitions.
ON A TRUE PATH
Now in his third full season at Tampa Bay Downs, Coa put together back-to-back solid years in 2011 and 2012, winning 120 races with mount earnings of almost $2-million.
This season, he is sixth in the standings with 31 victories, including a victory aboard Action Andy in the $60,000 Pelican Stakes. The Coas enjoy the Tampa Bay area, and with Liduvina working at the racetrack, they hope to soon be able to purchase a home. They took time over the recent Easter holiday to bring the boys to Davie in south Florida for a visit with Coa’s mother and grandmother.
“I keep encouraging him to stay dedicated to getting to the next level,” Liduvina said. “I know he can do it, but it is one step at a time.”
Centeno, his mentor and friend, is encouraged by the changes he has seen.
“He had some problems before, but his personal life is much better and he seems to be doing great,” Centeno said. “I see a complete difference from where he was before. His main focus now is his job and his family. He has always had talent, and I think he can do well anywhere he goes.
“So much of it is having strong support,” Centeno added. “His wife is a good woman, they have a new baby and when you have a stable home and family, your mind is going to be quiet and relaxed and you can be focused on your job.”
Coa also benefits from the confidence of his agent, former jockey Herson Sanchez, who previously handled his book toward the end of the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Downs meet, when Danny won his first Jockey of the Month Award. A down-to-earth, no-nonsense agent who expects Coa to honor his engagements and show up on time for his appointments, Sanchez says he is satisfied with the relationship.
“There is a lot of pressure in this business, and everybody is going to have good days and bad days,” Sanchez said, “but Danny seems even-keeled since I’ve been with him. He is pleasant to be with, and I can take him into any barn and most of the trainers take a liking to him.
“His wife is very supportive, and that means a lot on a personal level. Being a jockey is very demanding, and you want somebody standing behind you keeping you strong.”
Wherever Coa next goes to ride (he is still undecided about his summer plans), Sanchez expects him to succeed. “I think he is as talented a rider as there is here in Tampa,” Sanchez said, “and I think he’s good enough to be successful in Miami. With the right horses, I don’t think he would be overshadowed in New York. He has won races here for (Jonathan) Sheppard, (Graham) Motion, (William) Mott and (Thomas) Proctor, and if he continues to get those kind of opportunities, it will open up more doors for the future.”
Back in December, some observers wondered if a version of “bad Danny” had returned when he attempted to drive 4-5 favorite Saintly Love through a narrow opening between horses in the stretch of a 1-mile turf allowance race. Instead of surging to the lead, Saintly Love bumped both rivals, knocking Common Sense and his rider, Dean Butler, into the rail after a charging Common Sense appeared to be headed for victory.
Instead, Butler was forced to take Common Sense up and finished last. Saintly Love finished third, but was disqualified and placed last for interference.
Coa was suspended 10 days by track stewards for “extremely careless riding.” After watching the replays, he declined his right to appeal the suspension and made it a point to apologize to both Butler and the stewards for his actions.
“I was trying too hard to win that race, and I took a chance to go through a hole in the middle of those two horses when I saw daylight,” Coa said. “The moment I was going through, the horse on the outside (El Legado, with Roberto Alvarado, Jr., aboard) came in a little and made everything real tight. My horse is a big horse, and he bumped both of them. It was my fault, because I put Butler in a bad spot.
“When you make a mistake and you know you’re wrong, you have to step up to the plate and admit it and not make excuses.”
“The suspension set Danny back a little,” Sanchez said. “But he kept coming out to the backside in the morning, checking with people and letting them know he would be back soon. I thought that showed character. It could have been easy to disappear for 10 days.”
Butler thought Coa rode the race too aggressively and thinks he might have gotten overly excited at the chance to surge to the lead. But he appreciated the way Coa handled the aftermath, waiting a couple of days to sit down and explain his actions instead of issuing a quick, half-hearted apology.
“He knew I was a little hot-headed about it right after the race, and I’m sure if it happened to him, he’d be hot-headed, too,” Butler said. “We are all out there trying to win races and do the best we can, but there comes a time when you have to help your fellow riders and take care of them and show them respect.
“With him coming to me and more or less admitting his mistake, that shows class and respect for me as a rider,” Butler said. “I’ve always liked Danny. He can ride. I think a lot of that (incident) may have been that he’s young yet. We were all like that, but then you kind of settle down and start to realize, OK, it’s not always me making the horses win.”
Coa has since ridden Saintly Love in two other races for trainer Carlos Garcia, winning both times. “He fits that horse well,” Garcia said. “Coa is a patient rider and a very good finisher. He can ride with anybody here.”
As Coa continues building trust on the backside and in the jockeys’ room, his chances to display the promise he showed more than a decade ago keep improving. He has even begun to take on the role of an elder statesman and mentor to younger jockeys.
When Carlos Villasana, who is also from Venezuela, was unseated March 30 after his mount clipped heels, necessitating a trip to the hospital, Coa came out of the room to offer him words of encouragement as he was being loaded into the ambulance. Villasana suffered injured ribs in the accident and is out indefinitely.
“I wanted him to know that if he needed any kind of help, I would be here for him,” Coa said.
Still only 30, Coa wants to teach other riders the right way to go about their business.
“It’s been a long road,” Liduvina observed. “But before, our marriage was like a roller-coaster ride, and now it is smooth, like walking along Clearwater Beach. We have more communication with each other. I like the change. His mind is clear, and he has caught on to what we’ve all been telling him.”