If you’re looking for the local sportsman of the year, you needn’t look toward Raljon or Landover or Camden Yards or any of the area’s college gridirons or field houses. Just look to Laurel Park. Just look for Edgar Prado.

You might want to check the winner’s circle first. Prado spends an awful lot of time there. If it’s crowded, you might have trouble spotting him. Like all the jockeys, Prado is an eentsy-beentsy little fella: 5-foot-4, 111 pounds. But these days, he’s standing a few hands taller than his peers, if only figuratively.

By coaxing his mount, Hardball, into hitting the finish line first in Sunday’s 10th race on a muddy Laurel track, Prado became only the fourth jockey in racing history to record 500 victories in a single year.

Prior to 1997, the 30-year-old Prado, whose family works with horses back in his native Peru, had very quietly amassed 2,475 wins and collected purses totaling over $38 million in his career in the irons. But those numbers still left him several furlongs shy of famous. Jockeys, after all, are the most unsung of racing’s participants. They make their livings risking life and limb in 90-second or so increments, yet get just a fraction of the acclaim snagged by horses, trainers, and even animal owners. (Anybody know who rode Secretariat?)

In racing circles, Prado suffered from small pond syndrome. He’d never finished in the money on the Breeders Cup card or a leg of the Triple Crown. Instead, most of his wins have come on Maryland tracks, a big-league scene for sure, but not as revered or moneyed as the Kentucky, California, Florida, and New York racing circuits. He left Maryland a few years back for a brief grab for glory in New York but flopped. After just two wholly unsuccessful months, Prado came back to Laurel and Pimlico and seemed content just to be the biggest fish in the Free State ranks.

But by recording a 500-win year, Prado accomplished something that awes even longtime trackmen. And that’s saying something.

“Jocks are never going to get the credit they deserve as athletes, but if you ask me, what Prado has done this year is every bit as special as a baseball player hitting .400,” gushed Clem Florio, the official handicapper for Laurel Park and Pimlico. “Five hundred wins is something that just isn’t done much, and there’s a reason for that. To do what Prado did means he never let up, he never got hurt, he never rode dirty and got suspended. That really is a remarkable thing, especially at his age.”

The other members of the elite 500 Club were much younger than Prado when they joined: Chris McCarron (1974) and Kent Desormeaux (1989) were teenagers; Sandy Hawley (1973) was just 24. A jockey’s workload is such that youthful vigor would seem a prerequisite. On workdays, Prado arrives at Laurel at sunrise, when he begins working out horses and shmoozing with trainers to secure future rides. That leaves him time for a puny breakfast (staying pint-size is a full-time job in itself) and a nap before he has to get ready for post time and the real racing to start. The amount of strength and energy required just to stay on—let alone maintain control of—a 1,600-pound racehorse running at 40 mph is remarkable. A study done by the famed Kerlan-Jobe clinic in Southern California found that a rider’s pulse routinely reaches 180 during a race. That’s a workout no StairMaster can match.

Prado has had a huge year, but it took some doing to get it space in the record books. In June, when a 500-win year went from pipe dream to possibility, he stopped taking days off. Maryland tracks are dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, but Delaware tracks aren’t, so Prado shipped up to Delaware Park two days a week to try to pick up whatever mounts he could.

Lately, not only has Prado been averse to taking days off, but he has rarely sat out a single race. A top jockey will rarely run more than eight rides in the same day, but Prado stepped up his push for 500 wins to the point where he was taking 10 rides per card, meaning he danced every dance. The rewards for that workload were more than statistical. Jockeys, unlike top performers in other professional sports, don’t get long-term, guaranteed contracts. Instead, Prado makes money only if his mounts make money. Since the standard jockey salary is 10 percent of the purse for a winning ride, and Prado has already captured more than $8 million in purses in 1997, his take-home pay should buy an awful lot of hay.

But it’s the 500 wins, and not the money total, that ensures the jockey’s immortality. Steve Rushing, Prado’s agent, helped get his prized client there by keeping him out of the saddle of any animal that might be headed for the glue factory. Rushing says he was spending as much time studying the racing forms as even the most obsessed handicappers lately, all in hopes of getting Prado aboard the horse with the best chance to win. The closer Prado got to 500, the easier it was for Rushing to convince trainers to hand his jockey their reins.

By last weekend, Prado could wear any silks he wanted. In the race that put him over the top, Hardball—like most of Prado’s mounts in recent weeks—went off as the betting favorite. But it was still up to the jockey to bring the horse home. Which, for the 500th time, he did.

“I wanted 500. I tried for it. And I got it,” the humble Prado said, sitting in the Laurel jockeys room after his historic win.

And just how did he plan to celebrate?

“Oh, I don’t want to celebrate now. I just want to rest,” he said, sipping a beer. A light beer, natch.

—Dave McKenna