LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Edgar Prado left Maryland in 1999 after a decade as the state's dominant jockey, he left for this moment: A brilliantly sunny morning at Churchill Downs, surrounded by a throng of onlookers, perched atop the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
That moment occurred yesterday, as Prado and Harlan's Holiday, his gleaming mount, became the focus of the racing world. Prado sat astride Harlan's Holiday as he walked from his barn to the track, waited patiently for the track to open, and then walked, jogged, galloped and finally breezed a half-mile in his final tuneup for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Afterward, aglow in the bright sun of a spring morning, Prado acknowledged that this was his goal three years ago when he began riding in New York. But this was only one of his goals. Winning the Derby, winning any Triple Crown race, winning a Breeders' Cup race, those are the goals now driving this quiet and well-mannered but intense and ambitious athlete.
"I've got lots more goals to achieve," Prado said. "Every day you come in here you want to win a race. Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery. You live in today trying to achieve as much as you can."
Asked whether he has reached the top of his profession, Prado said: "I'm still working on it."
Ask Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame trainer, the same question about Prado, and you get a different answer: "He's as good as there is. When I go to New York I ride him, Jerry Bailey or John Velazquez."
Frankel has Laffit Pincay Jr., the winningest jockey in history, riding his Derby horse, Medaglia d'Oro. But Frankel and Prado teamed last year for major stakes victories in New York with Flute, You and Timboroa.
Prado didn't ride any of Frankel's California-based 3-year-olds, but he rode three of the best that raced in the East: Buddha, Mayakovsky and Harlan's Holiday. Prado is so much in demand that he had to give up the mount on Buddha in the Wood Memorial Stakes because he was riding Harlan's Holiday the same day in the Blue Grass Stakes. Both horses won, and Buddha could be the bettors' second choice in the Derby behind Harlan's Holiday.
Ken McPeek, the Kentucky-based trainer of Harlan's Holiday, hired Prado after the colt lost two stakes in a row this winter at Gulfstream Park. With Prado in the saddle, Harlan's Holiday easily captured two Grade I stakes, the Florida Derby and Blue Grass, earning his place as favorite in the Kentucky Derby.
"Edgar was riding gangbusters at Gulfstream," McPeek said. "He was proving himself every day. I thought he deserved a chance on a horse like this."
This will be Prado's third experience in the Kentucky Derby. Last year he finished fourth with Thunder Blitz. The year before, his first Derby, he finished 17th with Commendable. Both were long shots. Thunder Blitz was 25-1, and Commendable was 6-1, but only because he was part of a four-horse entry.
Asked about the chances of Harlan's Holiday, Prado said: "It's a tough race. In a 20-horse field anything can happen. The best horse doesn't necessarily win. But if he stays sound, and if he has a good trip, he'll be hard to beat."
Harlan's Holiday has proven that he's hard to beat. Of 10 races, he has lost only four, and each time he finished second. His six victories were all stakes, even his maiden victory.
That came in a $40,000 stakes for Ohio-breds last July at Thistledown in Cleveland. Yes, Harlan's Holiday is an Ohio-bred, a bay son of Harlan, who stood in Kentucky until his sudden death in 1999, and Christmas In Aiken, a daughter of Affirmed who resides in Ohio. Only one Ohio-bred has won the Kentucky Derby: Wintergreen in 1909.
Should Harlan's Holiday become the second, Prado would pocket the jockey's traditional 10 percent of earnings. The Georgia owners of Harlan's Holiday would collect $700,000 of the $1 million purse. And Prado would enrich his status as the nation's second-richest jockey this year behind Bailey.
Since immigrating to the United States in 1986 from his native Peru, where he had become leading jockey, Prado, 35, has won 3,761 races. His mounts have earned nearly $90 million. He settled in Maryland in 1989. For three consecutive years beginning in 1997, he led North American jockeys in wins. In 1997, he became the fourth jockey to win more than 500 races in one year.
Although Prado began riding in New York, Florida and Kentucky three years ago, he has not sold his farm in Howard County. His wife and three children live most of the year in South Florida, and Prado has rented the farm in case he ever returns.
"If Maryland ever becomes one of the top three or four racing states, I'd consider coming back," he said. "I like the lifestyle in Maryland, but I love the competition and the quality horses in New York. The money's better. I'd be crazy to go back to Maryland right now."
`Things looking good'