03/30/2010 11:00PM

Pegram has Derby fever - again


Just because he's an Indiana boy, don't expect Mike Pegram to go all nuts for Butler University when the hometown Cinderella team of the NCAA men's basketball tournament takes on Michigan State for a shot at the finals in Indianapolis on Saturday.

Anyway, Pegram was raised down in Baja Indiana, in the town of Princeton, where he led the Princeton Tigers to a sectional prep championship some 40 years ago.

"If you went back there today and asked them about me," Pegram said, "I don't know if they'd say, 'Was he the guy who won the Derby?' or 'Wasn't he the guy who hit the shot to win the sectional?' "

Okay, we get it. Indiana is basketball country. And while Pegram's basketball career didn't make it past high school, a score in the Derby next door in Kentucky isn't bad, and Pegram won his in 1998 with Real Quiet. Along the way, he also grabbed a Kentucky Oaks, a Hollywood Gold Cup, and a Dubai World Cup, not to mention four Breeders' Cup races and keys to just about every city where one of his McDonald's franchises does land office business.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, while Butler is dealing with the Spartans, Pegram will try to win his first Santa Anita Derby with reigning divisional champion Lookin At Lucky. The champ enters the nine-furlong stakes off a gritty win in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and sports an overall record of 6 wins and a hard-luck second in 7 starts. If he has done something wrong, no one has noticed.

Still, Lookin At Lucky scared nothing away. Nine were entered against him, and he will need to run his race to win. Local stakes winners Sidney's Candy, Caracortado, and Alphie's Bet stand in his way, along with the promising Skipshot and Setsuko. The winner will get his ticket punched to Louisville one month hence, but then, Lookin At Lucky has had Kentucky Derby stamped all over him since stretching out to two turns in the Norfolk Stakes last October.

That was the most impressive of his victories in terms of final margin, although his Rebel score, by a head over Noble's Promise, was a sight to see. Pegram recalled the moment at Oaklawn Park when his colt apparently clipped heels and stumbled on the backstretch.

"I had Mike Tice next to me," Pegram said, referring to the NFL coach and hardcore racing fan. "He said, 'The jock just stood up on him!' I said, 'Yeah, and thank God it's the half-mile pole. A good horse will figure out how to win. He's got plenty of time.' And that's exactly what he did. He showed the grit and determination that a good horse had to show."

Pegram was not expecting to be back at Santa Anita for its derby. After an all-synthetic 2-year-old campaign, the plan going into 2010 was to keep Lookin At Lucky on the dirt, in races such as the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby, to prepare for the big one at Churchill Downs. However, after the Rebel, trainer Bob Baffert called an audible.

"Let's face it," Pegram said, "that horse had a tough race in Arkansas. You can tell by the works Bobby did not train him hard going into it, so you know how fit that race had to make him. Bobby made the decision that he would rather have four weeks between his race leading up to the Derby, and that's the reason we're back on synthetic on Saturday. We'd have rather run on dirt, but the timing is right. And it's always nice to win at home."

It takes a colt like Lookin At Lucky to turn Pegram's undivided attention to horse racing these days. For the past three months, he and his partners in the Carson City casino Nadine's have been renovating their latest acquisition, the Carson Valley Inn, located in nearby Minden. The remodeled casino is going full bore, and on Wednesday afternoon Pegram opened the signature restaurant, the CVI Steakhouse.

"We had some pre-opening stuff last week for the community and the employees, but today we go live," Pegram said. "No more workouts. Only races."

Next on the drawing board is a renovation of the property's hotel accommodations.

"I'll tell you what the rooms of this hotel would remind you of," Pegram said. "The Executive West in Louisville. They're big and spacious, and just in need of a little tender loving care to bring them into the next century. Kind of like racetracks. If you don't put money back into them, it's amazing what happens to them."

In some ways it hurts to hear of all the time, treasure, and creative energy Pegram is putting into the casino and hotel business, especially since he was ready to devote the same level of investment in a horse racing facility, first with Fair Grounds in New Orleans and then with an expanded Los Alamitos out west. He was out-politicked in Louisiana and rebuffed in California.

Pegram has consoled himself with the successful Nevada enterprises, while enjoying the occasional day at the track watching Midnight Lute win back-to-back Breeders' Cup Sprints in 2007 and 2008, and then Lookin At Lucky evolve into a champion and classic contender. Partners Paul Weitman and Mark Watson have been along for the ride.

"After the race in Arkansas," Pegram said, "Paul looked at me in the winner's circle and goes, 'Now I know what Derby fever feels like.' That's the kind of thing you like to share."