Long ago, when Edgar Prado won his first race, the young jockey scrambled off and immediately hugged his horse. Thirty-five years later, and nearing a milestone, his devotion to racing hasn't waned.
At 50, and a grandfather to boot, Prado continues to saddle up as he'll do Thursday on opening day of the spring meet at Pimlico Race Course.
"It's my passion," said Prado, a Hall of Famer. "I feel great and I still love the game — but the young guys don't make it any easier for me."
With 6,997 career victories, he needs three to reach 7,000, a mark met by just seven other jockeys. Named to ride two horses Thursday and two Friday, Prado could hit that goal by Preakness Day (May 19).
To do so in Maryland, where he made his name, would be fitting, he suggested.
"The state has been so great to me; it's been the stomping grounds of my career," he said.
A native of Peru, Prado began competing in Maryland in 1989, celebrating his first win at Laurel Park aboard a $45 long shot. An assertive and aggressive rider, he won five races that week en route to capturing 24 riding titles during the next decade at Pimlico and Laurel. Three times the nation's winningest jockey, his 536 victories in 1997 are the third most ever.
That acclaim, plus a work ethic born of a hardscrabble childhood, earned him rides in Triple Crown races. Twice, aboard long shots, he won the Belmont Stakes, on Sarava (70-to-1) in 2002, and Birdstone (36-to-1) in 2004. Two years later, Prado rode Barbaro to victory in the Kentucky Derby before the horse broke down in the Preakness and after a roller-coaster convalescence, was finally destroyed.
Barbaro's demise hurt Prado deeply, another reason he'd like to win No. 7,000 at Pimlico.
"I definitely think about it, in the back of my head," he said. "I want to give something to the people of Maryland, to bring them joy."
"I will get on my knees and thank God for the opportunity, and my family and all of the owners, trainers, grooms and hot walkers for their support," he said.
The 10th of 11 children born to poor but proud parents, Prado vividly recalled his youth in Lima, Peru.
"I appreciate all that I have," he said, recalling the days when he shared one bedroom with all of his siblings, ate 1½ meals a day and wore hand-me-down clothes strewn with patches.
"My mother sacrificed to give us an education, and to keep us away from drugs and stuff," he said. "My father (an assistant trainer) taught me to love and care about horses. I try to pass along what I've learned to friends at the track, to encourage them to move forward."
Prado does likewise, though in the twilight of a stellar career, he finds it harder to attract the rides of his choice. Victories are less frequent for an aging jockey, even one with lifetime earnings of $266,727,556.
"In his heyday, everyone looked to use Edgar first. He'd have his choice of five horses," said Bob Klesaris, Prado's agent. "Now, we're fighting for every mount we can get."
Prado still breezes horses in the morning, and runs 4 or 5 miles a day, Klesaris said. And he's still one to be reckoned with on the track.
"He gets from the gate to the quarter pole as good as anyone," the agent said. "He might not be the same Edgar Prado in finishing a race as years ago, but he's smart, experienced and he positions his horse so well."
"No, no," the jockey said. "I want to go after [Angel] Cordero, who has 7,057 wins. And I still want to win the Preakness. I'll ride as long as I can deliver. I cannot shoot for something minor and be happy about it; I have to shoot for something that might be impossible to reach — but at least I'll know that I tried."