With reins, he reigns Horse racing: Edgar Prado lives and breathes horses, and his single-minded pursuit of excellence has made the Maryland jockey one of the nation's finest.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Edgar Prado may leave the racetrack, but never the horses.

Thundering thoroughbreds in photos and paintings hang on the walls of his home in Woodstock. Cupboards and coffee tables gleam with equine trophies. In Prado's living room, a big-screen TV trumpets race after race from track after track, an endless montage of flying hooves.

It's the jockey's day off, and he's immersed in the ponies.

Prado, who on Friday celebrated a milestone -- 1,000 wins over two years -- watches videotapes of each victory not to savor the race, but to pick it apart.

"He tries to correct himself; he wants to be perfect," says Prado's wife, Liliana. From the kitchen, where she is peeling potatoes, Liliana can see her husband on the edge of the sofa, straining forward as if in the saddle, eyes glued to the TV. His mount, Flying Monkey, is alongside another, barreling down the stretch at Laurel Park.

As they flash across the finish, it's Flying Monkey, who else? But Prado has spotted a flaw in victory No. 982. He shakes his head. Liliana rolls her eyes.

"He always says, 'I should have done this,' or 'I shouldn't have done that,' " she says. "He wants to be the best."

The numbers bear that out. Last year, Prado, a mainstay at Maryland tracks, led the country with 536 victories, third all-time behind Kent Desormeaux (598 in 1989) and Chris McCarron (546 in 1974).

Now, Prado has passed another benchmark. Again the nation's top jockey, his 468 victories give him a two-year total of 1,004. Only Desormeaux and McCarron have been there, too.

His peers applaud Prado and paint him as role model.

"Racing is a game of mistakes, but very seldom do you see Edgar make one," says Mark Johnston, one of Laurel's top riders.

"I'm striving to be what he is," says jockey Seth Martinez, 19. "One thousand wins is phenomenal. To associate with someone like that is like hitting behind Mark McGwire."

At 31, Prado has hit his stride.

"I love my job," he says, which helps explain why this diligent, dark-haired Peruvian has become the nation's winningest rider. Prado's racing acumen is unsurpassed, say Maryland horsemen, who marvel at his cool head, sensitive hands and compassionate heart.

"What Edgar has is horse sense," says jockey Mario Pino, a 19-year veteran.

"He molds to his mounts so well," trainer Dale Capuano says, "it's like he's a part of the horse, not a passenger."

Few jockeys care as much about the animal's well-being, says trainer Graham Motion. "Edgar is one of the rare ones who will stop by the barn after a race to check on the horse," he says.

It's no wonder the 5-foot-4, 110-pound Prado has become the most sought-after rider on the Maryland circuit.

"One of the biggest assets of having Edgar ride for you is that he's not riding against you," says Motion. "I don't want that son of a gun turning at the top of the stretch and riding neck and neck with my horse."

Prado's savvy stems from a lifetime spent around horses and those who own, train and ride them. The son of an assistant trainer in Lima, Peru, he was mucking out stables at age 5, exercising horses at 14 and racing a year later. His earnings helped his impoverished family turn the corner. Literally. The Prados -- all 13 of them -- left a spartan two-room flat for one with five rooms.

An overnight star, Prado was not. "My first race [1983], I finished last -- way, way back," he says. Six weeks later, he finally scored aboard a colt named Tatin and was so excited, "I hugged the horse."

As the victories mounted, American tracks beckoned. At 18, Prado emigrated to Miami, then moved to Boston, tagging along after trainers who offered him work. He parlayed his winnings into passage for three siblings to the United States, as well as his marriage to Liliana, the daughter of a track veterinarian whom he'd met while competing in Peru. They wed in 1988.

A year later, Prado arrived in Maryland, winning his initial race at Laurel on a $45 long shot, Long Alure. The horse broke from the middle of the track, angled inside and clung to the rail until the end, surging ahead to win by four lengths. The pattern would become vintage Prado.

The next day, he won two races. By the end of the first week, he'd won five.

His assertive style paid off on the track, but sometimes caused trouble off it. Prado's obsession to win aggravated other riders, who'd confront the new kid between races. The jockeys traded words -- or punches.

"Ronnie Franklin and I went at it from the snack bar to the stairs," Prado said of one back-room brawl at Pimlico Race Course. "We pulled hair, rolling on the floor."

In 1989, he tussled with Desormeaux, then Maryland's top rider, who had approached Prado after a race at Laurel. "Why did you ride that way?" Desormeaux asked. Fists flew in the jockeys' room before a valet stopped the fight.

"I was kind of reckless then," Prado says of his early racing technique. "Sometimes, I would just push my way through other horses. Now, I make sure no one will get hurt. At first, I tried too hard to win, and to prove to myself that I could ride. I changed gradually. When you win, you ride with a more cool head."

Another example of Prado's drive to win is his Herculean work ethic, a dawn-to-dusk regimen that hasn't changed despite his success (3,479 career victories). He exercises horses at sunrise at the track and then goes to work, usually riding in six to eight races a day.

He works many seven-day weeks and has ridden as many as 12 mounts a day. He has raced in two states on the same day, starting at Pimlico and finishing at Delaware Park.

"His work habits are super," says Hamilton Smith, a trainer who employs Prado regularly. "Just because he's the best rider here doesn't mean he won't exercise a horse at 6 a.m. if you need him. Edgar is always trying to learn more, and you can't do that staying in bed."

The workouts help Prado bond with more difficult mounts. "Every horse has his key," he says. "You just have to find it."

Prado's tenacity is such that he seldom scratches from a mount, even when injured. Thrown from a horse in 1991, he was rushed to Sinai Hospital for X-rays but returned to Pimlico in time to ride the last race.

In 1993, he somersaulted forward off his horse, which broke a leg, and was nearly trampled on the far turn at Pimlico. Prado got up, changed his silks and won three races. A year later, at Laurel, he performed an impromptu acrobatics show, clinging Indiana Jones-style to the side of a frightened mount who tried to toss him. Prado eventually righted himself while galloping at 30 mph.

"He may not look it, but the guy has brute strength," says trainer Ferris Allen. "Edgar has a real knack of settling a horse down without changing its mind about running."

Three years ago, a filly named Machinegungirl crumpled during a race, slamming Prado to the track and breaking his back, pelvis and collarbone. Out 3 1/2 months, he rehabbed at home by riding a mechanical horse.

Prado is acutely aware that injury goes with the job. For some struggling jockeys without medical insurance, a spill can be devastating financially. When riders pass the cap for one of their own, Prado will kick in a day's winnings, sometimes thousands of dollars.

His empathy extends to the horses themselves. Alaska Bound Clint's Coming You Don't Say. Prado remembers his mounts who broke down, to be euthanized on the spot.

"The horse is your partner, your only friend in the race," he says. "People fall in love with these horses. To see one put down drives you crazy."

To honor the thoroughbreds who have succumbed, he wants to finance establishment of a monument at Laurel. The animals' names would be carved in stone. "If it wasn't for the horses, we wouldn't be here," says Prado.

His sensitivity, as well as his success, endears Prado to trainers, who find themselves jockeying for his services.

"In any eight-horse allowance race, Edgar could probably ride six of them if he wanted to," says Motion, the trainer.

His popularity can produce tension as Prado's agent entertains multiple offers before each race.

"It's hard to get him," said trainer Charles Hadry. "Trainers get upset when they think they've got [Prado], only to find out they don't have him two days before a race. Then you have to take what's left [in the jockey pool], and sometimes it's not worth a damn."

But jilted trainers get miffed at their own peril, Hadry said: "If you don't go back to Prado, you're only hurting yourself."

For instance, Prado wins about 25 percent of his races, nearly four times the success rate of the average jockey. Six times in the past eight years, he has been Maryland's top rider; in 1997, he placed third in the Eclipse Award voting for the country's top jockey.

This year, his mounts have won more than $9.5 million, which puts Prado nationally in the top 10 -- barely. The ranking reflects his decision to compete on the small mid-Atlantic circuit.

Despite Prado's growing stature, he balks at following the path of Desormeaux and McCarron, who used Maryland as a springboard to bigger racing venues in California and New York.

Prado tried Aqueduct once, in the winter of 1994, with moderate success. The tracks were icy; likewise, some trainers.

"I had to start from the bottom again," he says. So he returned to a cozier clime.

"Edgar likes being a big fish in a little pool," says Motion. "He could ride anywhere, but he gets the cream of the crop here. Plus, he's got his family."

Says Prado: "You like to be rich, but you have to be happy."

Two tight-fisted iron jockeys guard the front door of Leariva Farm, the 5 1/2 -acre homestead Prado named for a favorite mount. Here, equidistant from Laurel and Pimlico, he lives with his wife and three children -- Edgar Jr., Patricia and Louis. A brother, Javier, recently moved next door.

Prado's retreat is less a haven from racing than a celebration of it. Horses graze alongside a satellite dish that snags races from tracks nationwide.

Behind the house, two aging nags nibble at tired December grass. Chester and Handu are retired track ponies whom Prado rescued.

"We hired them to cut the grass," he says glibly. Then Prado offers a more charitable motive: "They'd probably be dog food by now."

When he's not engrossed in the races, Prado rides the ponies. On crisp winter days, he and Edgar Jr., 12, canter off along the maze of horse trails that run behind the farm. Over a stream and through the woods to Patapsco State Park they go, passing pine trees, not quarter-poles. If anything rushes by Prado there, it must be wearing antlers.

"It's a different kind of ride," he says. "No worries, just relax and enjoy it."

Even on his break, Prado remains in the saddle.

"It's really boring without horses around."

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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