02/10/2005 12:00AM

Pegram having too much fun to mope


ARCADIA, Calif. - About this time last year, Mike Pegram let it slip that he had a real nice 2-year-old filly down on the farm in Florida, where J.B. and Kevin McKathan prepare the young Pegram runners for eventual racing careers.

"This is the only Grade 1 winner ever bred to Real Quiet," Pegram said, referring to the mating of his Kentucky Derby winner and his Citidancer mare Hookedonthefeelin. "The boys say she's a real runner - the best of the bunch."

The boys were right. Real Quiet's daughter, named Pussycat Doll, has emerged as a 3-year-old filly of promising quality, sporting the same knack for a route of ground that made her sire a champion. Her trainer, Bob Baffert, had Pussycat Doll going two turns right out of the box last fall - why bother with short sprints? - and now on Saturday at Santa Anita she will have a chance to stretch her wings again in the one-mile Las Virgenes Stakes. Pegram is psyched.

"Let's hope on Saturday we find out if she's the real deal," he said this week.

Pussycat Doll earned her berth in the Las Virgenes with a solid second last time out to champion Sweet Catomine in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. It can be argued that Pussycat Doll was no match for the champ that day, losing by 2 1/2 lengths, when Sweet Catomine clearly needed the race. But history tells us that Real Quiet was a slow developer as well, finally hitting his best stride in the spring of his 3-year-old season with victories in the 1998 Derby and Preakness.

The Las Virgenes comes up a modest Grade 1 event, as these things go. Without local division leaders Sweet Catomine and Splendid Blended in the field, Sharp Lisa is the likely favorite, coming off a win in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez. Pussycat Doll will get her share of support.

"Her mama was a cold sprinter," Pegram said. "And this filly is much stretchier. It's obvious the Real Quiet influence has hit her as far as her running style and wanting to go long."

No horse has ever come closer to winning the Triple Crown - without winning it - than Real Quiet. His head-bobbing loss to Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont Stakes still sticks in a corner of Pegram's craw, even though Big Mike plays it down as a character-building experience. Getting a chance to race Real Quiet's offspring should be a soothing tonic that could last many years.

"I think I've got a good bunch of 2-year-olds coming up this year," Pegram noted. "Hookedonthefeelin's brother is one of them. If all goes well, we'll be lighting it up at Del Mar, going hard for all seven weeks."

It has been apparent for at least the last decade that horse racing needs Mike Pegram. Few patrons of the game connect so naturally with the fan in the stands. That is where Pegram got his start, and that is where he remains the most comfortable.

Pegram's trademark red and gold - fashioned after his string of McDonald's franchises - has adorned fast horses with such popular names as High Stakes Player, Arches of Gold, and Letthebighoss-roll. He names horses for friends (Captain Steve, Danthebluegrass-man), beverage consumption (Silverbulletday, Icecoldbeer-atreds), and fond recollections (Favored One, Love on the Rail, Preachinatthebar). Occasionally, the taste police at the Jockey Club reject a suggestion - blame it on Isitingood, a record-setting son of Crusader Sword - which never fazes Pegram in the least. He also named a horse Censored.

By Pegram standards, Pussycat Doll seems tame. Has he lost his racy edge?

"Naw, we were just sitting around the bar one night and some guys said, 'You ought to name a horse Pussycat Doll,' " Pegram replied. "So I did. It's fun to go down a list of names anymore and know what you've inspired out of people."

Pegram, whose business philosophy begins and ends with customer service, lost a chance to inspire a lot more people last year when he finished second in a no-holds-barred battle for control of Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. Pegram thought the deal was done, and he was ready to throw his heart and soul into the management of the track. Then the ownership closed the deal instead with Churchill Downs.

To say the experience left Pegram bitter is an understatement. Let's just say he never considered sending Pussycat Doll to Fair Grounds for the Silverbulletday Stakes on Saturday. He responded, though, by turning a negative into a positive. Not long after the sale fell through, he proposed marriage to Mary Ellen Cardoza, his off-and-on companion of the last nine years.

"She's like the troops in Iraq," Pegram said. "She's been through a lot, and badly undercompensated. But if Baffert can be a father at 52, I can sure be a husband at 52.

"Anyway, after all that Louisiana stuff, I realized how much I loved Arizona, and how much Mary Ellen meant to me. So I figured I got my life back. I'm going to sit back and enjoy my horses, and show up for the wedding ceremony when she says when.

"As far as Louisiana goes, at least I know I tried to make a difference," Pegram added. "But I did name a horse Louisiana Insertion."