07/20/2003 11:00PM

This year, Prado enters meet a marked man


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Jerry Bailey dominated the first seven days of the 2002 Saratoga meet. The other 29 belonged to Edgar Prado.

After beginning the meet 4 for 46 - including an 0-for-30 slump - Prado rode a remarkable 50 winners from 204 mounts over the final 29 days to win his first Saratoga riding title, ending Bailey's three-year reign atop the Spa standings. Prado finished the 36-day stand with 54 winners - 10 more than Bailey and one shy of Bailey's Saratoga record, set in 2001, when Bailey went 55 for 200.

Riding titles are not uncommon for Prado, who dominated the Maryland circuit in the 1990's. But copping his first Saratoga crown was significant to the 36-year-old Peruvian.

"In Saratoga, you lose track of what day of the week it is because every day is a big day over there," said Prado, who recorded four four-win days during a five-day period in the middle of the 2002 meet. "Winning those four races with the eyes of everybody watching was nice. It's hard to win one race a day; winning four a day is even better. Everything fell into place, and we took advantage of that."

Prado will try to defend his title when the 135th Saratoga meet begins on Wednesday. Coincidentally, Prado's first mount this year will be the same first mount he had last year. Hydrogen, with whom Prado won the first race of the 2002 meet, is entered in the second race on Wednesday's 10-race card. Prado is named to ride nine horses on opening day.

If Prado is to defend his crown, he is going to have to do it against an even deeper jockey colony than he faced last year. Eight of the top 10 money-won jockeys are based at Saratoga, including newcomer Cornelio Velasquez. Shane Sellers, who won a combined 53 races here in 1999 and 2000, returns after a two-year hiatus.

Unlike Bailey and John Velazquez, Prado does not have the luxury of riding first call for top trainers such as Bobby Frankel or Todd Pletcher. But Prado is one of the most sought-after riders, as his Belmont-leading 301 mounts will attest. At Belmont, Prado had 59 wins and finished as the second leading rider behind Velazquez. Prado won races for 23 different trainers.

"That could be his strength," said trainer Christophe Clement, who has used Prado with more frequency this year. "He's a very popular man."

Prado, who won the most races in the country from 1997-99, is enjoying one of his most productive years in terms of money won. Through Sunday, his mounts had earned $10,012,652, second only to Bailey's $12.5 million. Last year, Prado's mounts earned $18 million. Prado has won 152 races this year.

"It plays both ways," Prado said when asked if he would prefer to be a first-call rider for one trainer. "But, you cannot put all of your eggs in one basket. I'm trying to keep everybody happy and ride for everybody, because you never know when you're going to come up with a good horse."

Bird Town is a case in point. Prado had watched Bird Town race in Florida and was impressed with the way the filly won the Charon Stakes by 12 1/2 lengths. She was ridden by Eibar Coa then. Coa had made prior commitments when the Kentucky Oaks came around, so Prado picked up the call.

Dismissed at 18-1 in the Oaks, Bird Town nearly went to her knees coming out of the starting gate. Prado gathered her up, let Bird Town get her feet underneath her, and she came home a 3 1/4-length winner.

A month later, Prado guided Bird Town to a head victory in the Grade 1 Acorn. This Saturday, Prado will ride Bird Town in the Grade 1 Test.

Trainer Nick Zito said Prado's skills "played a tremendous part" in Bird Town winning the Oaks. "Edgar's one of the best jockeys in America, period," Zito said.

Though he doesn't get the pick of the litter from Frankel or Pletcher, Prado gets his fair share of opportunities in those barns. Prado won the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass aboard the Frankel-trained Peace Rules and must choose between that horse and Sky Mesa for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Aug. 3 at Monmouth. Prado also rides Milwaukee Brew, the Santa Anita Handicap winner, for Frankel.

"Bobby's first choice is Jerry - there's nothing wrong to be second choice," said Prado, who is represented by Bob Frieze. "He can only ride one horse at a time and be one place at a time."

For Prado, the place he wants most to be is the Saratoga winner's circle.