07/20/2005 11:00PM

Los Al makes sense to Pegram


DEL MAR, Calif. - The view from Mike Pegram's place is choice, especially when he wanders out onto his terrace. Off to the right, the line of sight runs from the Brigantine Restaurant across Pacific Coast Highway to the cliffs of Solana Beach and the ocean beyond. To the left, filling the plain of the San Dieguito River, lie the stables, the racetrack, and the grandstand of Del Mar.

It's a short walk along Via de la Valle to PCH and then down a pathway to the beach, where Pegram huffs and puffs his way through a sandy power walk every summer morning. Thursday's exercise was especially productive, with a humid layer up from the Gulf of Mexico helping to sweat out the remnants of Del Mar's highly festive opening day.

Ever loyal to the home team, Pegram was among the 40,000 and then some who subjected themselves to the opener, a cultural phenomenon that has become both a tribute to the ongoing popularity of Del Mar and a test of overtaxed racetrack plumbing.

"Don't get me wrong, they do a great job handling that many people," said Pegram, a veteran of many openers. "But that one might have been it for me. Don't be surprised to see me up here on my balcony for opening day next year."

Then again, don't be surprised if he dives right back in. As racing fans go, there are few who enjoy the ground-level racetrack delights more than Mike Pegram. The track runs hot in his blood and deep in his bones, and he has spent his McDonald's franchise fortune well enough to be able to display an array of precious trophies that represent victories in the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, the Dubai World Cup, and a Breeders' Cup, among many others.

On Sunday, Pegram will try to add a local bauble when Preachinatthebar, a winner of two straight allowance races, goes off in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap in a field that will include defending champ Choctaw Nation.

"It's been a long time since the Preacher ran on Sunday, if at all," Pegram said. "I wouldn't put it past him to pull it off."

If he doesn't, the party won't stop for Pegram. After 15 years in the Thoroughbred business, with Bob Baffert handling his runners and Lady Luck never far away, Pegram has enjoyed enough adventures to last a lifetime, courtesy of horses like Real Quiet, Captain Steve, and Silverbulletday.

Lately, however, he has turned his considerable resources toward the California racing landscape, and the future of the sport in a state beset by self-inflicted turmoil, such as the recent sale of Hollywood Park to Bay Meadows Land Co., which has promised just three more years of operation unless certain economic and political demands are met.

As a result, the sale has set off a firestorm of speculation over the fate of the Hollywood racing dates if - or more likely when - Bay Meadows closes the Inglewood track and develops the property.

Pegram is backing a plan (with a $40 million commitment) that would convert the facility at Los Alamitos into a Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse operation. To Pegram, a best-case scenario would be for Bay Meadows to encourage a smooth transfer of their Hollywood dates to an upgraded Los Alamitos - possibly as early as the fall of 2007 - then phase out of racetrack operation as their Hollywood property shifts to other uses.

"The option is laid out," Pegram said. "We would like to have a transition from Hollywood Park to Los Alamitos with those dates. We do not want to get into a date war with Hollywood. I don't think that's necessary."

Pegram's approach includes both an olive branch and a plea for common sense.

"If we all get on the same page we'll end up doing what's good in the long run for all of us," he said, "because we all know two things have to happen: There's got to be fans that create mutuel handle and horses to create mutuel handle. Anyone who talks about anything other than those two things, I don't want to hear.

"Right now the discussions are between Bay Meadows Land and Los Alamitos," he said. "I'm not involved, but once there is a deal, I'll be back in. After that, it's up to the racing industry, and by that I mean the racing board. But I'm very bullish and very willing to stay in and see what happens. I just hope the industry is willing to hear us out. As of now, there are still choices for California, and as long as you've got options, you've got a good life. But if you run out of options, you are really between a rock and a hard place, and that's where the California racing industry is heading.

"If this thing comes off, we're going to be the Southwest Airlines of the racing business," Pegram said. "We're going to underpromise, we're going to overdeliver, and less will mean more. This is the sport of kings, but it's built on the shoulders of working people. Los Alamitos will be built for the industry, and for the fans."