Edgar Prado’s final ascension to the top of his profession began with a deeply difficult career decision he made in the summer of 1999. That’s when he abandoned his comfortable life in Maryland for the possibilities only New York can offer a top rider, even one who had already led the nation in victories.
Prado’s personal ascension came years earlier. For as skilled as he is in the saddle on a thousand-pound Thoroughbred traveling nearly 40 miles an hour, Prado is much more adept as a caring human being, one who has lived by a simple belief. “I always believe that if you do things from the bottom of your heart, the man upstairs can always watch that,” Prado said. “That’s the best thing to be.”
That faith was tested in 2006, his thrill of winning his first Kentucky Derby bracketed by the death of his mother four months before the Derby and the agony of Barbaro’s devastating breakdown in the Preakness Stakes just two weeks after the Run for the Roses. “The loss of his mother was tragic to him,” trainer John Ward said. “He’s a great family man.”
Prado survived and hammered out a remarkable year, sweeping riding titles at the Belmont Park Summer Meet, Saratoga and the Belmont Fall Meet (when he tied with Eibar Coa), a hat trick which, combined with his first Derby, a Breeders’ Cup victory on Round Pond, eight other Grade 1 stakes wins and nearly $20 million in earnings, produced his first Eclipse Award. Prado didn’t attend those Eclipse Awards Dinner in Beverly Hills. He was with his family in Peru for the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death.
Prado has never let awards define himself. He is about so much more than winning awards.
“He always looks to take care of the smaller person and the person who might not be as well off as he is,” Ward Said.
Maybe that was meant to be. Prado’s angular face is dominated by his deep, sad eyes, as if he knows of suffering others aren’t aware of, or don’t care to acknowledge. Sam Huff, the legendary New York Giant linebacker who has found a life after football with Thoroughbreds as an owner, breeder and weekly radio show host, can testify to that.
Huff owned a great turf filly named Bursting Forth, who captured the 1999 Grade 3 Bewitch Stakes at Keeneland in track record time under Prado for trainer Graham Morton. “Let me tell you how classy Edgar is,” Huff said. “There’s a Mexican kid, maybe 18 or 19, that got killed on the backside in a car accident. Graham’s wife, Anita, was taking a collection to send the body back to Mexico. I would always give extra money to the jockey when I won a stakes race. He said, ‘Mr.Huff, I appreciate what you do, but would you please give the money to Anita Motion to send the body back to Mexico?’ I said, ‘That’s some special guy.’” Thinking back about it at Saratoga, Prado remembers telling Huff, “Make the check out to the kid. He needs it more than I do.”
Prado, 46, was born into the business in Lima, Peru where his father was an assistant trainer, and his brothers, Jorge and Anibal, would also become jockeys. The youngest of 11 children, Prado would watch his father, Jose, go the track at 4am each morning, and his mom, Zenaida, work odd jobs and take care of her enormous family. “She was an inspiration in my life,” Prado told Tom Pedulla in a May 16th, 2006 story in USA Today. “She really made me the person that I am.”
Prado was 16 when he rode his first winner in Peru, a horse named Tatin, in October of 1983.
Less than three years later, after becoming the leading rider in Peru, Prado rode his first winner in the United States, Single Love, on June 1st, 1986, at Calder. He had come to Florida as a contract rider for trainer Manny Azpurua.
Eventually, Prado settled in Maryland, and, with his wife Lilliana, raise their children, Edgar, Patricia and Louis, now 26, 19 and 18-years old respectively. Prado built an incredibly successful career in Maryland, winning his first two titles at Pimlico and Laurel in 1990, then leading the nation in victories three straight years. He became just the fourth rider to ever top 500 victories when he won 536 races in 1997. Only Sandy Hawley (515 in 1973) Chris McCarron (546 in 1974) and Kent Desormeaux (598 in 1989) had ever done so. Just like Prado, Hall of Famers McCarron and Desormeaux were based in Maryland when they topped 500.
Prado led the country in victories again in 1998 with 470 and would make it three straight titles in 1999 with 402, despite leaving Maryland that summer to pursue an unexpected opportunity in New York when trainer John Kimmel lost his main rider, Richard Migliore, to injury just before the Saratoga meet began. It was a difficult decision for Prado, “It was very hard to leave a place that you average 400, 500 winners a year. I was doing very well in Maryland at the time. I was happy with my family. I was happy with the place I was living. A couple of times, the train had gone by. I had the opportunity to come to California. I had a chance to come to New York. I didn’t take them. I was getting older. I thought it was a good time to give it a try. It was a very hard decision to make, but at the same time it was a great opportunity to take a step up in my career. And I’m glad everything worked out beautifully.”
He had no doubts about his ability to succeed at the toughest race meeting in the country, if not the world, Saratoga. “I convinced myself that I can compete and I was confident in what I can do on top of a horse,” he said. “But the question was, ‘Would I have the opportunity to show it?’ You cannot show what kind of abilities you have if you don’t have the opportunity.”
With Kimmel, he did. “I’m glad I met John Kimmel,” Prado said. “I met other trainers and they gave me an opportunity. They gave me a shot. Then I showed what I can do on the track and I started building up my business.”
It didn’t take horsemen and fans at Saratoga long to realize what Marylanders had learned years earlier: Prado is a brilliant rider. He demonstrated that immediately at Saratoga, tapping into an extreme inside bias that summer before most other riders did. “I remember that in 1999,” Prado said eight years later. “The rail was like gold.”
That fit perfectly into what Prado had been doing anyway. “I’m a person that likes to be on the rail,” he said. “I rode for Bobby Klesaris and Joe Tamarro. Those two guys told me in you want to make a difference, you have to save the ground. You have to be inside. I think I learned a lot from them. I try to apply it every time I ride. Sometimes things don’t work out my way, but I know it’s the shortest way home. Sometimes you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Sometimes you look wrong when you don’t get through.”
Most times, he does. He finished his first Saratoga meet with 36 winners, second only to Jerry Bailey’s 47.
A year later, Prado won his first New York title, capturing the 2000 Belmont Fall Championship Meet with 38 victories.
Though he did not win a New York title in 2001, he finished as New York’s second leading rider for the year with 193 wins. One of his vintage rides that year came at Saratoga aboard Flute in the prestigious Grad 1 Alabama Stakes for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. Though the three-year-old filly had not been racing on the lead in her races, she broke first and took the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama gate-to-wire. “Some horses come running out of the gate and they do everything so easy, why do you want to take anything away, especially if the horse is telling you she wants to run?” Prado asked.
Prado said he rarely rode for Frankel until he came to New York. “And then I started riding for him,” Prado said. “Bobby never gives me too much instruction when I go to the paddock. He says, ‘You’re on your own.’
“One thing about trying to win is to have the confidence to do what you want during the race,” Prado continued. “That will make a lot of difference. You’ll be set to make the right moves. You know he wants to win as much as I want to win. Most of the time, confidence comes from the barn. It comes from the trainer. You’re already winning half the race. The other half, you can work on.”
Despite having won three consecutive national riding titles and achieving considerable success in New York, Prado did not have a presence in the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup, racing’s most visible and meaningful stages, until 2002. That’s when he rode 70-1 longshot Sarava for trainer Kenny McPeek to a stunning upset of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes. Later that summer, Prado won the first of his three Saratoga riding titles.
In 2004, Prado won the Belmont Stakes again, this time on Birdstone, denying undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 and silencing a crowd of more than 120,000, the largest to ever attend a sporting event in New York State history.
After the wire, when he and Stewart Elliot, Smarty Jones’s jockey, were pulling up their horses on the backstretch, the first words out of Prado’s mouth were, “I’m sorry.”
Who else but Edgar Prado would have celebrated such a dramatic victory with a moment of deep compassion for another?
“I was rooting hard for him,” Prado said. “I was rooting for a Triple Crown. Stewart Elliot is a friend and Mr. Servis (John, Smarty Jones’s trainer) is a friend of mine, and the sport needed a hero. Unfortunately, I was the man to beat him. I was glad that I won the race, but I was disappointed that I was beating a horse that a lot of the people had come to the track to see become a Triple Crown winner. But it’s part of the business. We only get paid when we win a race. So we’ve got to get the money every time we can.”
Even so, Prado admired how Elliot handled his bitter disappointment. “Stewart Elliot handled himself very well, as a professional and as a human being,” Prado said. “He didn’t point any fingers. He didn’t blame anyone else, like some jockeys do. He was very professional. He took it like a man. That’s the way it should be.”
In 2005, Prado reached the pinnacle in New York, finishing the year as the leading rider with 206 victories thanks to riding titles at Saratoga and Belmont Park in the Fall. After he won the final race one Monday afternoon at Saratoga, saving ground all the way to the hedge to win a turf race with Love My Gal, Prado changed his clothes, rounded up his family and raced to a fund-raiser for jockeys on Saratoga Lake. He was one of just three jockeys who rode that afternoon at Saratoga to attend the event, one benefiting their own fraternity. “That’s what it’s all about; we have to help each other,” Prado said. “The racing industry needs more support from the jockeys, from a lot of other sources. Every little crumb helps, I think. If we can help somebody else in need, why not? I’m in a situation that I can do that and I’m very glad to be able to do it. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way I want because of business or I’m working or I’m tired or whatever it is, but most of the time, if I’m available I will definitely do it without thinking twice.”
Later in 2005, Prado finally broke through in the Breeders’ cup at Belmont Park, winning the Juvenile Fillies with Folklore and the Sprint with Silver Train. But in the very next race after winning the Sprint, Prado was lucky to escape injury when his mount in the Mile, Funfair, broke down and was later euthanized. It seems that Prado’s moments of great triumph are frequently tinged with sadness. Because he was with his family a year after his mother passed away, he was robbed of the thrill of being at the 2007 Eclipse Awards Dinner to accept his first Eclipse Award.
A year earlier, hi ailing mother succumbed to cancer at the age of 76 in Peru, just a day after she finally received permission to come to the United States for treatment. The 10 year visa had expired the year before and the paperwork had not been completed fast enough to help her. “The hardest part of my life was when I lost my mother,” Prado said.
He didn’t have long to dwell on his grief. Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey’s retirement in January and an early season injury to Velazquez left Prado not only the top rider in New York but in high demand for the Triple Crown. Suddenly, Prado was the rider of three legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders. The one he chose to ride was undefeated Barbaro trained by Michael Matz.
Having won all three starts on grass, including two stakes, Barbaro switched to the dirt and won the Holy Bull Stakes, then the Florida Derby thanks to a flawless ride by Prado, as Barbaro became the first horse to win form the 10 post at Gulfstream Park in months.
Matz decided to train Barbaro up to the Kentucky Derby, and Barbaro was magnificent, taking the Run for the Roses by 6.5 lengths. “I knew at the three-sixteenths pole he was going to win the race,” Prado said. “He was cruising along. When I showed him the stick, he took off. His performance was very impressive that day. I was encouraging him, but I wasn’t really beating him up to get there. I wrapped him up the last 40 yards.”
Prado had a good reason. His undefeated Kentucky Derby winner would contest the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore two weeks later, a grand homecoming to Maryland for Prado.
As he walked Barbaro back to the winner’s circle after the Derby, Prado, typically, kept pointing attention to his horse not to himself. Asked why months later, Prado said, “Because he did more. I was a very lucky passenger that day. I was just able to keep him out of trouble and go along for the ride.”
Two weeks later, it would be a much different ride, as Barbaro suffered a devastating breakdown in the first eighth of a mile in the Preakness. Prado did a masterful job of pulling up his horse out of everyone’s way, but the ordeal was just beginning. Barbaro had shattering his right hind leg, suffering three fractures above and below the ankle, and was hanging on for life.
“I felt terrible,” Prado said. “I was really heart-broken. It was devastating, the whole situation. Letting people down, especially a lot of my friends in Maryland. I was going there with hope of bringing happiness to all my people over there instead of bringing a lot of tears and sadness. And that was the last thing I wanted to do to a place that really helped me over the years.
“I was very saddened to see a true champion like Barbaro end up his career that way. I could take defeat anytime, knowing that I was able to leave and try another day. But that day, I never thought of that coming.”
Prado’s alert actions saved Barbaro’s life at the time, yet Prado deferred credit. “No, I think he saved his life. He’s a smart horse. I think anybody could have done the same thing. We’re in the game and we love our partners.”
That’s why, when he returned to ride in New York the day after the Preakness, he was stunned to hear several idiotic fans boo him. “I was a little saddened coming to New York,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a great place and they received me like that. It was a few people and that’s everywhere. I was really very sad. I was heartbroken. But giving up is for quitters and I don’t quit.”
Instead, Prado won the Belmont Summer Meet and the Saratoga Meet despite competing in quite possibly the deepest jockey colony in decades, and tied for the Belmont Fall Meet.
His success is not by accident. “Edgar is a very hard working rider in the morning,” Ward said. “He’s an extremely skilled rider in the afternoon, but part of what make his skill is that he’s there in the morning to work horses. He understands what the benefits are in knowing a horse and I think that’s what puts him at the top of the game. Any professional athlete with a strong work ethic is a top athlete.”
Veteran New York trainer Mike Hushion had heard of Prado’s reputation before he moved up from Maryland in 1999. “He’s a first-class person,” Hushion said. “I remember his first year around here and the reputation he came from Maryland with, about what a special, decent guy he was. And he’s certainly done nothing to disprove that.”
He also wins bushels of races. Hushion was asked why. “Well, I think he does the same thing – it’s an old line, but he puts everything in a position where they can win if they’re good enough,” Hushion said. “Jerry (Bailey) did it as good as anybody that ever was and Edgar does the exact same thing. He doesn’t get over-excited. He doesn’t go into any race with any negatives, either, and I kind of like that about him. All he does is take care of business, race after race.”
That is why he was able to record his 5,000th career victory on Dot Comma in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, March 13th 2004, not long after he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2003.
The Hall of Fame did celebrate him, inducting him on August 3rd, 2008, and on that proud morning he was inducted, maybe thinking of Barbaro, who was euthanized January 29th, 2007, won’t hurt so much. “The worst thing is that nobody saw his best,” Prado said.
Everybody has seen Prado’s best. On the track and off.
Prado is currently ranked #53 of 974 jockeys with $816,104 in earnings in 2014.
Year Starts Firsts Seconds Thirds Earnings
2014 131 15 16 18 $816,104
2013 775 101 89 92 $6,856,905
2012 693 75 84 104 $4,805,890
2011 767 79 100 66 $5,120,436
2010 877 116 134 107 $7,039,031
2009 1,020 123 142 146 $9,142,768
2008 1,211 215 200 152 $15,137,019
2007 1,117 207 180 140 $13,664,963
2006 1,303 248 218 190 $19,762,813
2005 1,460 299 227 206 $18,615,366
2004 1,445 281 249 204 $18,342,230
2003 1,478 259 235 208 $18,477,832
2002 1,527 289 246 218 $18,024,429
2001 1,569 259 255 211 $14,134,745
2000 1,642 255 245 255 $12,376,892
1999 1,902 402 307 276 $10,581,436
1998 1,969 470 377 285 $9,921,241
1997 2,046 535 386 309 $8,947,295
1996 1,605 331 266 261 $5,755,096
1995 1,143 220 193 158 $3,407,984
1994 1,470 273 262 229 $4,734,611
1993 1,260 287 218 176 $4,677,414
1992 1,697 350 280 220 $5,510,108
1991 1,717 286 276 242 $4,525,247
1990 1,648 307 264 220 $4,556,593
1989 1,507 222 213 188 $3,272,551
1988 1,019 153 137 142 $1,125,208
1987 497 36 30 57 $366,791
1986 167 9 16 18 $136,379
Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado will be signing the just-released paperback edition of his book My Guy Barbaro, on Belmont Stakes Day, Saturday, June 6, Prado will be available from 9:30-10:30 a.m. on the second floor of the Belmont Park clubhouse in front of the NYRA Store. Copies of My Guy Barbaro are available in the NYRA Store for $13.99.
Eclipse Award-winner Bill Heller is the author of fifteen horse racing books