Edgar Prado returned to Saratoga to win the Grade 1 King's Bishop on the Travers undercard Saturday.
The Hall of Fame jockey allowed Runhappy to gradually reach the lead from the outside post, it could have taken strides but Prado doled it out over 2 furlongs. Runhappy opened up 2 lengths on the turn, but Prado still sat like a bee was buzzing around his ear. Straightening into the stretch, Prado began to pump, rhythmical, steady, elbows low like always, weight deep in his heels, butt down, a commercial for core strength. Prado waved his whip right-handed, smacked the longshot twice and hand-rode him to the wire. At the wire, Prado stood up, no pump, no celebration, just another notch on his belt, another line on his Hall of Fame plaque.
The race took 1:20.54. The walk back to the jocks' room took much longer.
Pristine and clean in red, white and blue silks, Prado walked, next to a Pinkerton. The crowd cheered, like raindrops off an umbrella. "Edgarrrrrrr." Prado stopped for an autograph, scribbling across the 11 line on the King's Bishop page of a program. Prado walked a step, then stopped. "Great ride, Edgar." He posed with a man in a baseball hat holding a can of Heineken. "How about Edgar winning a Grade 1." Prado leaned down and put his arm around a kid in a Red Sox jersey. "Edgar. Edgar. Edgar." A skinny blond in cut off shorts told him she loved him. He said, simply, "Thank you." He posed in a photo, "for Tasha." A guy tried to take a photo and had the phone shooting the wrong way, Prado waited. "Edgar, you're the best, you made me a lot of money in my day, you really did." Prado smiled. "Edgar, you made a lot of money for yourself." Prado walked a step, then stopped, walked two steps and stopped. "Love you buddy." A teenager, with a backward baseball hat and an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt posed awkwardly, but proudly. God Bless America rang through the speakers.
It was a long walk - Saratoga's version of the guard of honour.
It took Prado 11 minutes to walk from the grandstand to the apron of the jocks' room, finally signing his last autograph across American Pharoah's photo on the front of the Travers Day program. Prado walked into the covered aisle of the jocks' room and that's when the honors got higher - from Prado's peers, from his comrades. Spanish, Irish and American valets high-fived him on their way to saddle horses for the Forego. Then the jockeys for the Forego answered clerk of scales Tim Kelly's order to leave the jocks' room, meeting Prado at the door. The breadth of Prado's achievement, his career, resonated loud and clear. There is nothing like peer approval. California-based Martin Pedroza shoulder bumped Prado. New York-based John Velazquez bear-hugged him. Eighteen-year-old Eric Cancel shook his hand and smiled, a boy to a man. Brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz fist bumped and high-fived him. French-born Julien Leparoux spoke English. Jose Lezcano spoke Spanish. Panamanian Cornelio Velasquez combined the two. Twelve jockeys walked out of the room and 12 jockeys congratulated Prado.
He took a deep breath.
"It feels great. I've been blessed so many times in my career, to come back here and win a Grade 1 here, it's another great experience, another blessing in my career," Prado said. "I rode a lot of great horses, met a lot of great people here, to come back and win a Grade 1 for new connections, it's special."
Prado dominated Maryland racing from 1991 to 1998, before venturing to Saratoga in 1999. He won three Saratoga riding titles (2002, 2005, 2006) to go along with titles at Belmont and Aqueduct. He won the Whitney, Travers, Alabama, Ballerina, Vanderbilt, Adirondack, Ballston Spa, Diana, Forego, Glens Falls, Jim Dandy, King's Bishop, Lake George, Lake Placid, Saratoga Special, Test, Woodward...you get the drift.
And then he didn't. Prado's business dwindled. He left the New York circuit to ride on the Florida circuit year round.
"It's like taking a fish out of the water, a bird without a wing, I totally miss it a lot but it is what it is," Prado said. "I don't accept it, you don't accept something being taken away, something you love so much, but you've got to go with the flow, if I accepted it, I couldn't come here. I still can ride, I can still deliver the job. I need the horse to do it."
Runhappy was the horse, leaping out of an allowance race at Ellis Park to win a Grade 1 stakes at Saratoga. Just like old times, Prado was back at the top.
"I tried to just ride him past the wire," Prado said, "Then I had a great feeling in my heart, just blessed again."
Blessed for the win and blessed by the response to his return to Saratoga.
"It feels great, to have friends, it's such a competitive game, it's nice to have friends care about you," Prado said. "You have to treat this game with respect, but you have to earn the respect, too."