I visited the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey Training
Academy today (Dec. 9). It's located at Hipodromo Presidente Remon near Panama
A school for riders has been operating at Panama's
only racetrack since 1960, but academic classes in such subjects as English-speaking
and basic math didn't become part of the program until 2009.
The academy graduated its most recent class of
riders Dec. 2. There were 15 in the group, including Keiber Koa. He is the
19-year-old son of well-known American-based jockey Eibar Coa, who was seriously
injured in a racing accident at Gulfstream Park earlier this year. The elder
Coa, who also was at the school today, is walking again after originally being
paralyzed throughout most of his body following the spill.
Kieber Coa, who completed high school, lives in the
USA, and is the son of a successful rider, wasn't a typical academy student.
Most who study there are Panamanian residents who are victims of poverty and some
have been in trouble with the law.
This is "the only shot they have to be someone,"
according to Eibar Coa, who grew up poor and attended a school for jockeys in
his native Venezuela.
The elder Coa served as a translator for recent
academy graduate Jose Rodriguez who is from Colon, a Panamanian city where
unemployment and crime are high. Rodriguez, 17, has two brothers and his father
is a welder. Three of his uncles have been shot and killed. He has had legal
problems, but what they were wasn't specified.
To Rodriguez, a thin, polite, and shy-looking
teen-ager, the motivation to be a jockey wasn't the love of the horse. Instead,
he was spurred by the desire to get off the street, make money, and help his
family. He lives in a room at a stable at the track and has trouble stretching
the money he receives from his father far enough to cover his expenses.
Rodriguez said it was "hard" to complete the academy's
two-year course. But he stuck it out and graduated. Half of his class' original
pool of 30 students didn't make it that far.
Rodriguez has ridden in his first official race and
has an agent lined up. He will begin pursuing his career as a jockey full-time
next week. His goal eventually is to go to America and earn a good living.
Previous graduates of the school include Alex Solis,
Elvis Trujillo, Cornelio Velasquez, Fernando Jara, and Rene Douglas.
Eibar Coa said what makes riders from Panama and
other countries in Central America or South America so successful is that they
ride because of "the need." Because many come from poor backgrounds and a
desire for a better life, they are tough competitors. So don't be surprised if
Jose Rodriquez is a name that becomes famous in racing one day.