07/26/2004 12:00AM

New York has pushed Prado to next level


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Since moving his tack to New York five years ago, jockey Edgar Prado no longer wins the most races. He just wins many of the races that matter most.

Since becoming a New York rider in July 1999, Prado has won 29 Grade 1 races - including the Belmont Stakes twice - and 168 stakes overall. He enters his sixth year on the New York circuit riding in perhaps the best form of his career.

Since June 21, Prado has ridden 50 winners from 150 mounts. That streak features a five-win day last month and two four-win days in July, including Sunday's closing-day performance at Belmont Park. With 72 winners, he finished second in the Belmont standings behind John Velazquez, with 77. After 32 days of the 60-day meet, Velazquez had led Prado, 48-24.

Since June 5, Prado has won 11 stakes for 10 different trainers, including the Belmont aboard Birdstone, whose victory denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown.

"I don't think he has any real weaknesses," said trainer Stan Hough, for whom Prado won last month's Grade 1 United Nations with Request for Parole.

Prado, 37, hopes the good times continue with Wednesday's opening of the prestigious Saratoga meet, which brings together the best riders, trainers, and horses from New York and Kentucky for 36 days of high-octane racing. "I'm going to go and not change anything; keep doing what I've been doing, working hard in the mornings and ride for my customers," Prado said in between races last week in the Belmont jockeys' room. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it. So far, things are going great."

It was five years ago this month when trainer John Kimmel summoned Prado, then the kingpin of Maryland racing, to Saratoga as a replacement for the injured Richard Migliore. Prado made himself right at home that meet, winning 36 races and finishing second in the standings behind Jerry Bailey. Three years later, Prado won 54 races here and took the riding title.

Trainer Barclay Tagg, who was based in Maryland for many years, had for a long time told Prado and his agent at the time, Steve Rushing, that he should move to New York. It was Tagg who notified Rushing to contact Kimmel following Migliore's injury.

"I thought he was wasting his time down there," Tagg said.

Prado said coming to New York was a difficult decision because his wife and three children really enjoyed their life in Maryland, where the family lived on a 5 1/2-acre farm. Moreover, Prado was riding the best horse in every race and led the country in wins three straight years (1997-99).

Moving to New York helped Prado become a better rider. No longer on a Ferrari every race, Prado, in essence, had to become a jockey again.

"I realized I had to wait a little longer, had to save ground, bide my time, and ride a little better than everybody else," Prado said. "In Maryland, you could make a mistake and still win the race because I was riding the best horse all the time. When you don't have the best horse, you have to do everything possible to win."

Unlike Velazquez, who is tied in with Todd Pletcher, and Jerry Bailey, who rides most of the top stock for Bill Mott and Bobby Frankel, Prado rides for virtually everybody. Trainer James Bond sacked Prado for a month after agent Bob Frieze spun Bond on a call. But the two are back together, and Bond, for one, couldn't be happier.

"I love Edgar," Bond said. "I love Edgar's work ethic; I love Edgar's riding style. When he comes back off a horse, he tells me, 'Jim, you need to sell this one,' or 'Jim, we might be okay here.' "

Prado, who passed the 5,000-win mark this year, not only enters Saratoga with momentum, but with tremendous confidence.

"When you're winning, your confidence level is raised up," Prado said. "When you go to the paddock and the trainer tells you, 'You know what to do,' that gives you even more confidence. That's very important, that a trainer has confidence in you and you're able to make any move in a race."

For his career, Prado made his best move five years ago.