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Now 48, Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado comes full circle with return to Pimlico

Hall of Famer Edgar Prado has returned to Maryland to race full time at Pimlico.

In 1988, one of Bob Klesaris' jockeys at Boston's Suffolk Downs was suspended. Too aggressive a ride, too tight, the trainer was told. Klesaris challenged the decision. It was his first appeal at the racecourse. He was confident the stewards would see, as he did, that his jockey was "100 percent in the right."

They didn't, and when Klesaris returned to the barn area, he spotted the offending jockey.

"Listen, I'm going to send you to Maryland," he recalled telling him.

Edgar Prado, who over the next decade in the state would become its leading jockey six times, turned to Klesaris. Not knowing much about the nation's geography, he asked: "What country is that?"

When the 28-day Preakness Meet at Pimlico Race Course opens Thursday, Prado will have a better idea of Maryland's place in the world, and his own as well.

As he became one of the nation's top riders and set his course toward a Hall of Fame career, winning more than 500 races in one year in Maryland, he raised a family in Howard County and developed a taste for the local seafood. Now, in what Klesaris called the "twilight" of his racing days, Prado is returning to ride full time on the state circuit after spending the past year and a half primarily in South Florida. He is happy to be back, and those friends he left in 1999 are happy to have him back.

"When you're doing good in one place and you have a lot of friends and you're surrounded by good people, you experience nothing but good experiences, you know?" Prado said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "You feel great about it."

He was calling from near Pimlico, a rental home he said needed some "touch-ups" before a three-race slate in Friday's program. There were rooms to be cleaned, clothes to be organized — anything to lend order to life on the road, where home can change by the season.

For so long, it had been a big plot of land in Woodstock. It suited his wife and three children well. Outside, there was a farm and not one worry about the clamor of traffic or danger of passing cars. Inside was a shrine to his career: trophies and awards, photos and paintings.

A Peruvian immigrant who arrived in the country at 18 speaking no English, Prado rode for a couple of years in New England and Florida before settling in Maryland. He took his first race, at Laurel Park, on a long-shot horse by four lengths. He won two races the next day, and two more by the end of that first week.

By 1991, he was Maryland's top jockey. In 1997, he won 535 races, only the fourth rider ever to reach the 500-win threshold. In 1999, he led the nation in victories for the third straight year.

"He was killing 'em in Maryland," Klesaris said, and so Prado decided to graduate to New York, where he captured his first New York Racing Association title in the fall of 2000 at Belmont Park. Two years later came the first of two Belmont Stakes wins, and in 2006, his beloved mount was Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who broke down tragically at the Preakness.

The middle jewel of the Triple Crown, which this year anchors an eight-stakes card on the May 21 Preakness Day, has so far eluded Prado. It is not what drew the 48-year-old with nearly 7,000 career wins back to Maryland.

Prado's last year at Gulfstream Park, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., was difficult. His earnings lagging, his injuries mounting, his age creeping toward 50, Prado found a good horse hard to come by.

New York might not have been any better, so Klesaris, his agent since 2012, asked him: Why not Maryland?

Prado missed his friends, missed the crab cakes. There was a "whole atmosphere" about the state's racing for which he now longed, Prado said. Maryland isn't a country, he now knew, but if it were, he would be welcomed almost as a dignitary. Maryland Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra likened his return Wednesday to that of a star athlete leaving in free agency, then "coming back to the team that he started with."

"I've never had the reception at a jurisdiction like I'm getting now," Klesaris said. "It's almost like everybody's elated he's coming back. Everybody's jumping on it. Now all he has to do is win a few races, and he's going to be off."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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