05/09/2006 12:00AM

Nobody's riding higher than Prado

Kentucky Derby-winning rider Edgar Prado, 39, has won 5,606 races.

Edgar Prado was already among Thoroughbred racing's elite jockeys by the time Pat Day, Gary Stevens, and Jerry Bailey decided to hang up their tack. But the retirement of those three Hall of Fame riders in a six-month period may have hastened Prado's ascension to the very top of his profession.

Prado has further enhanced his status in the game by guiding Barbaro to victory in last Saturday's . It was the biggest and probably the most important of the 5,606 victories the 39-year-old Peruvian rider has recorded in his 20-year career in North America. It was the culmination of a spring when his services were in high demand both professionally and personally.

From a professional standpoint, Prado was sought after by a host of trainers with 3-year-olds pointing to the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Frank Brothers tabbed Prado to replace Bailey aboard First Samurai. Trainer John Ward, in part, altered plans with his top 3-year-old Strong Contender to keep Prado on him as long as possible. Trainer Todd Pletcher reached out to Prado for Keyed Entry during the prep season when his regular rider, John Velazquez, opted for Bluegrass Cat in a March 18 conflict. And Michael Matz summoned Prado when he first brought Barbaro from the Northeast to south Florida for the winter.

"Of the available riders on a daily basis, Edgar has definitely got the experience and the reception from the established trainers as being the go-to guy," Ward said.

Personally, Prado had to deal with the death of his mother, Zenilda, who died on Jan. 19 in Peru. Prado was away from his vocation for nearly two weeks, taking care of family business in his homeland. Prado is the second youngest of 12 children. Upon his return to riding, Prado was still less than 100 percent focused. During his first two weeks back, he went 7 for 69, an uncharacteristically low 10 percent win rate.

"His mind was elsewhere," said Bob Frieze, Prado's agent since the spring of 2000. "He comes from a big family and he's taken care of a lot of them. There are a lot of things that he does that people don't know about. He had a lot on his plate."

"To me it was more important to take care of the people I love the most, my family," Prado said. "Now we're back on track and hopefully we'll be able to do what we've been doing."

What Prado has been doing lately is cementing his Hall of Fame resume, which includes Triple Crown-thwarting Belmont Stakes victories aboard longshots Sarava (2002) and Birdstone (2004). Last fall, he ended an 0-for-31 drought in the Breeders' Cup by winning the Juvenile Fillies aboard Folklore and later the Sprint aboard Silver Train. Prado had been the regular rider of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Saint Liam, but was taken off that horse by owner William Warren following that colt's narrow loss to Commentator in the Whitney at Saratoga. Bailey rode Saint Liam in the Classic.

Frieze believes Warren's decision cost Prado a shot at his first Eclipse Award. Had he won the Classic, Prado would have had three winners on the sport's richest day and his yearly purse earnings would have surpassed $20 million. As it was, he finished with $18,615,366, second to only John Velazquez, who won the Eclipse Award for a second straight year.

Unlike Velazquez, who rides first call for Pletcher, Prado does not ride exclusively for a particular barn. That suits Frieze just fine.

"It helps because you have more avenues to go," Frieze said. "You try to ride the best horse, but it's nice to ride for everybody."

Prado first got aboard Barbaro on Jan. 1, riding him to victory in the Tropical Park Derby on turf at Calder. From there, wins in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby followed. Prado basically got the same trip each time, stalking a pacesetter while in the clear. Along the way, he kept asking Peter Brette, Matz's assistant and Barbaro's exercise rider, about teaching the horse to handle dirt in his face.

"When I rode him in the Holy Bull I said just be sure whatever you do teach him to take the dirt," Prado said. "He said, 'We're working on it.' Luckily, he had a nice clean trip in the Florida Derby and I kept asking him. 'You've been teaching him?' He said, 'Yeah, there's no problem.'

"When he took the dirt the first couple of jumps out of the gate, I was very confident," Prado added.

"He's ridden the horse beautifully every time," Matz said during a post-race reception in the Kentucky Derby museum. "From a tough post position [in Florida Derby] to a field of 20 horses, he puts him in a place where he can win the race and that's all you can ask a jockey to do. He's a great rider; he's a real gentleman, also."

Bailey, who retired in January, said Prado's recent success in the sport's major races "puts him on the short list of jockeys that a trainer will call when they need a rider."

Bailey's descriptions of Prado's strengths as a rider sound similar to the way others described Bailey in his prime.

"He's usually in the right spot, he makes very few mistakes, he doesn't get streaky," Bailey said. "A lot of riders get brilliant, then they're average, but he's pretty consistent. He puts his horses where they need to be when they need to be there."

Bailey also marvels at how much Prado rides.

"He rides the cheap horses as hard as he does the good horses," Bailey said. "He gives everybody their money's worth. I tip my hat to him for that."

Prado said he would love to be held in the same regard as others once held Day, Stevens, and Bailey.

"Hopefully, everybody gives me calls and tells me to go different places to ride their horses," Prado said. "I would love to fill those shoes and become the kind of rider Jerry was."

Prado said his one regret about the Derby was not being able to bring his mother to the winner's circle.

"My mother didn't come to the races very often," Prado said. "When I had a chance with Harlan's Holiday" - the Derby favorite in 2002 - "I brought her and then I brought her another time. I really wanted to bring her with me to the winner's circle [Saturday]."

Speaking of the impact of the Derby win, Prado, said, "Professionally, it helps a lot. But emotionally too."

A week from Saturday, Prado will be at Pimlico where he won 14 riding titles during the 1990's before shifting his tack to New York in the summer of 1999. For all his victories at Old Hilltop, however, Prado has yet to win a Preakness. He is 0 for 8, with three fourth-place finishes.

"I have a lot of friends there and Michael Matz has run a lot of horses there, too, so it's like everybody is going back home, and we're hoping to get the job done," Prado said.

Top jockeys by earnings

Through May 8

1Pat Day8,803$297,912,019
2Jerry Bailey5,893296,064,129
3Chris McCarron7,141263,985,505
4Laffit Pincay Jr.9,530237,120,625
5Gary Stevens4,888221,187,064
6Eddie Delahoussaye6,384195,884,940
7Alex Solis*4,376192,934,936
8Jose Santos*4,029182,834,855
9Kent Desormeaux*4,596182,002,211
10Mike Smith*4,537176,225,823
11Edgar Prado*5,606173,361,041
12John Velazquez*3,503166,813,795
13Angel Cordero Jr.7,057164,570,227
14Corey Nakatani*2,991163,875,815
15Jorge Chavez*4,149148,305,123

* - Active