06/26/2002 12:00AM

New aces playing their hands


ELMONT, N.Y. - Another round of torch-passing.

We're more conscious of this during formal scheduled moments, such as Chris McCarron's remarkable retirement weekend. But as McCarron leaves the active scene, Edgar Prado is now second in the national standings for purses won, with $7.5 million during the first half of the season. Jerry Bailey, the perennial leader in this department, has on several occasions speculated he may be ready to pack it in after another couple of years.

Eddie Arcaro and Ted Atkinson gave way to Angel Cordero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez. When Cordero and Velasquez bowed out, Bailey and Pat Day and Gary Stevens were moving in as worthy successors. Now the spotlight is on Prado and John Velasquez and Victor Espinoza.

Prado has been a good rider for a long time. He was good when he left his native Peru in 1986 and came to the United States He was good during his 10 seasons in Maryland, from 1989 to 1999. But it was his decision to come to New York in July of 1999 that earned him the recognition and the choice assignments that followed.

He was tapped to ride Harlan's Holiday in the Florida Derby, and when he won it, and followed with a victory in the Blue Grass, he was on the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Ken McPeek, the trainer of Harlan's Holiday, asked Prado to ride a 3-year-old named Sarava in one of the secondary features on the Preakness card. Sarava won the Sir Barton easily, but the step up to the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont was audacious.

Prado recommended it, enjoyed a picture trip, and shocked the racing world with a victory at 70-1.

There were other noteworthy victories this season, and there should be more to come, perhaps as soon as the weekend, when he rides the Black-Eyed Susan winner, Chamrousse, in the $250,000 Mother Goose at Belmont Park.

The McCarron retirement was extensively covered last weekend, but one incident largely overlooked was the situation in the Kentucky Derby of 1987 when Alysheba stumbled in the upper stretch.

"Straightening for home," McCarron said, "Bet Twice came out about two horse paths and Alysheba came in about half a path. With Bet Twice slightly in front, Alysheba's left front foot clipped Bet Twice's right rear foot, causing Alysheba to stumble badly. It was one of the worst stumbles I've ever experienced and great credit goes to Alysheba's agility and surefootedness that enabled him to regain his stride. I sat backward, seeking balance, but Alysheba was the key player.

"The stumble was at the three-sixteenths pole," McCarron recalled. "Had we gone down, it probably would have resulted in the worst spill in American racing history, for the entire field of 16 was right behind us. Everyone had his head down and was driving his horse. It would have been a complete disaster. But we were lucky. We caught Bet Twice at the sixteenth pole and won by almost a lengths."

As a start to his retirement, McCarron and his wife, Judy, accompanied by retired trainer Gary Jones and his wife, are going to Alaska for a week of fishing and sight-seeing. They will fly from Los Angeles to Anchorage, and then drive four hours to the Kenai Peninsula, a trip reported to be one of the most scenic on the continent.