As Edgar Prado dominated Maryland racing day after day, year after year, fans and horsemen constantly speculated how he would fare in the sport's big leagues. The jockey had a magical knack for putting his mounts in the right place at the right time, but he was competing against passive rivals who were no match for him. He surely wouldn't be able to make all of the same moves against the smart, aggressive riders in New York, and it was uncertain if Prado could succeed there. Prado himself seemed quite content to stay at Laurel and Pimlico and be the shark in a small pond.

But when the jockey serendipitously got a chance to ride in New York this summer, he answered any lingering questions about his talent. Within a matter of a few weeks, he proved that he could ride with the best in his business. He is already entrenched on the New York circuit, ranking fourth in the jockey standings at Belmont Park, and he will probably never return to Maryland on a regular basis. The game here won't be the same without him.

Shortly before Saratoga opened in July, jockey Richard Migliore broke his arm in a spill, leaving John Kimmel--one of New York's top trainers--without his regular rider. Kimmel asked Prado if he would come to Saratoga.

Could he make it in New York? "The only way to find out was to try," Prado said. "This was the opportunity to take."

But there was one stumbling block. Kimmel is a friend of Migliore's agent, and he strongly suggested that Prado employ the agent at Saratoga. With this golden opportunity beckoning him, Prado said no. He told Kimmel that he and his agent, Steve Rushing, had been a team throughout his career, and that they would come to New York together or not at all. Not many athletes put loyalty above ambition, but Prado did. One New York agent said: "A lot of trainers were impressed that he showed so much class."

When the Prado-Rushing team arrived at Saratoga, Rushing said, "We thought it might evolve into something on a full-time basis. I've always known Edgar was good enough to compete. The question was if he'd get the chance." At first he didn't. Because many trainers had already given riding commitments to other jockeys during the early part of the Saratoga meeting, Prado started the season 1 for 28. But soon he was winning and attracting attention.

In the Adirondack Stakes, he was riding Kimmel's 2-year-old filly Regally Appealing, who had shown high speed in both her starts but had lost the second one after getting involved in a duel for the lead. On paper she looked like a one-dimensional frontrunner. When the gate opened, Regally Appealing broke alertly, as usual, but Prado restrained her and persuaded the filly to relax. As three of her rivals battled head-and-head for the lead, Regally Appealing sat fourth, stalking them in perfect position, and then rallied to win. How many hundreds of times have Marylanders witnessed similar scenarios when Prado put a horse in just the right spot? New York trainers already knew Prado by reputation--he has led the nation in victories for the last two years--and now they liked what they saw.

By the end of the Saratoga meeting, Prado ranked second behind Jerry Bailey in the jockey standings--ahead of such notables as Pat Day, Shane Sellers and Mike Smith. An even more impressive statistic was this: The average price on Prado's victorious mounts was 7 to 1 (compared with 5 to 2 for Bailey). He wasn't getting dominant horses to ride, as he regularly did in Maryland, and still he was winning. At Belmont this fall he has begun to get mounts from the elite members of the training profession: Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey, Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito. Riding horses for such stables can eventually propel a jockey to the Jerry Bailey level.

Although every jockey dreams of such success, Prado hadn't hungered for it insatiably. He was quite content with his status as the kingpin of Laurel and Pimlico. He, his wife and three children had a stable family life--a luxury not allowed to jockeys who move from circuit to circuit. They liked their rural environment; there were good schools that the children could attend--year round. "Living in Maryland is great," Prado said. He is still reluctant to declare that his move to New York is permanent, but he knows that it is. Walking away from success at the upper echelon of his sport, he acknowledged, "would be craziest thing I ever did."

Prado's absence will change the nature of the game in Maryland and the horseplayers view it. In every race, his presence had been a relevant (and frequently exasperating) factor. If a bettor likes a horse with Prado aboard, his odds would be sharply depressed because of the jockey's popularity. But when bettors took a stand against Prado, the jockey would regularly find a way to beat them with the second- or third-best horse in the field. Most Marylanders are happy that Prado has gone to play in the league where he belongs.