As the summer meeting at Laurel Park came to a close yesterday, chief operations officer James Mango happily reported that financial figures for Maryland racing continue to edge upward. But Mango's joy was somewhat tempered by thoughts of what the state's thoroughbred scene might be on the verge of losing, namely jockey Edgar Prado.

The total betting handle for 1999, according to Mango, stands at more than $622 million, an increase of more than $55 million over last year. Bets coming from out of state through the track's simulcast network account for most of that hike. Mango said factors that make Maryland simulcasting attractive to horseplayers nationwide include good graphics, a good announcer and the presence of Prado, who has won more races than any rider in the nation the last two years.

"We don't want to lose Edgar," Mango said. "You can't ever replace a guy like that. With the national notoriety he's gotten, he's been like a gift from heaven."

With Prado spending the summer at Saratoga for the first time, Mario Pino led all Laurel Park riders in wins for the summer meeting, marking the first time since 1995 that somebody other than Prado took a riding crown either at that track or Pimlico. Prado has been successful in New York, ranking third in wins, ahead of Pat Day and Shane Sellers.

After brief meetings at Timonium and Colonial Downs, live racing will return to Laurel Park for the fall meeting beginning Oct. 13. But Prado won't be coming back then. He has already decided to stay in New York and spend his autumn riding at Belmont Park, where purses are bigger. And if he keeps winning, Prado would have little financial incentive to return to Maryland to race this winter, or ever again.

"Maryland is my home, but it all depends on what happens at Belmont," Prado said from Saratoga, after riding two more winners on Friday's card. "I will have to choose either Gulfstream or Aqueduct, if the business is there. But I don't have to make that decision yet."

And when asked how it felt to surrender a Maryland riding title to another jockey after so many seasons of dominating the state's tracks, Prado said, "Well, I have to congratulate Mario. But I still have the best winning percentage there."

Notes: The 10-day Maryland State Fair meet opens at Timonium today and runs through Sept. 6. Highlights include the $40,000 Winning Colors Stakes and the Powder Puff Derby, a race for female jockeys only, both scheduled for Labor Day. The meeting at Colonial Downs lasts from Sept. 6 to Oct. 10.