11/04/2009 12:00AM

Pegram looks to join select BC group

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Pegram will be looking for his fifth BC victory next week.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Seeing as he's a Tommy Bahama, Ray-Ban, Del Mar in summer, Scottsdale in winter kind of guy, Mike Pegram can be forgiven if he remembers in vivid detail the coldest of the cold Breeders' Cups.

"I was there in 1991 at Churchill Downs, and it was colder than hell," said Pegram, who was raised just across the river in Indiana. But hey, his friend Bobby Baffert was running his first horse in a Breeders' Cup, the filly Soviet Sojourn, so where else was Pegram supposed to be? Anyway, after a while, the cold wasn't so bad.

"I remember my buddy from Indiana had two pair of gloves," Pegram said, "and thank god he was left-handed and I was right-handed. We kept one hand in a pocket and doubled up on the other, and each of us was able to keep a cold beer in the gloved hand.

"About as warm as it got was 45 degrees," Pegram added. "But still, the whole apron was full, all the way down to the quarter pole. The place was packed. It had total life, poppin' and goin' with excitement. That's why last year was such a bummer."

At this point, the informed reader is wondering what Pegram had to be bummed about. After all, last year at Santa Anita his Midnight Lute ran off with an unprecedented second straight win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint to give Pegram a fourth victory in a Breeders' Cup event.

Three of those wins came with partners, while the other was a solo shot with Pegram's Hall of Fame filly, Silverbulletday. And if Pegram is able to nail another Cup race next Saturday with likely Juvenile favorite Lookin at Lucky, being associated with five Breeders' Cup champions would put him in rare territory, occupied only by the likes of Allen Paulson, Eugene Klein, Stavros Niarchos, Frank Stronach, the Ogdens of Phipps fame, and the Maktoums of Dubai.

None of them, and it's a bet, have had Pegram-level fun, which is why he cares so much about the size of the crowd and the energy in the house. This is a guy who made his millions with some of the slickest, best appointed McDonald's franchises in the western United States, and who is now lending his considerable knack for pleasing the public to a pair of casinos in Carson City, Nevada's capital. Such a commitment stems from his mentor, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who once got on the loudspeaker and apologized to fans for the poor play of his San Diego Padres.

"Ray Kroc was all about giving people a quality product at a price they could afford," Pegram said. "Horse racing needs to take a lesson from that. And then the Breeders' Cup goes and hikes prices like they did last year and practically tells people to stay away."

The announced crowds for the Friday and Saturday Breeders' Cup cards last year were 31,527 and 51,331, respectively, with two-day reserved ticket packages required. Pegram was especially appalled at the Friday numbers, for what was supposed to be racing's championship moment.

"I've always felt that the Kentucky Derby belongs to everybody, but the Breeders' Cup is racing's day," Pegram added. "It's for the horse people - the people who just love the game. You start pricing them out of an event like this, and you're turning your back on the folks who got you there."

Pegram had one of his best days at Gulfstream in 1992 when he was part of the Thirty Slews celebration after the Sprint, and then one of his worst days at the same site, in 1999, when Silverbulletday, who won the Juvenile Fillies the year before, ended her brilliant 3-year-old campaign with a distant sixth in the Distaff.

In 2000, at Churchill Downs, Pegram took on the big boys in the Classic with Captain Steve, named for Louisville police Capt. Steve Thompson, and finished a respectable third.

"I was happier than hell," Pegram said. "It cost me $360,000 to enter him - more than I'd ever spent to even buy a horse at that point in time - and he won nearly $600,000. On top of that, I had a hundred dollar trifecta box with Tiznow and Giant's Causeway. And because of all the commotion, I still had the ticket in my pocket the next morning when I changed planes in St. Louis."

The payoff for the $2 trifecta in the 2000 Classic was $1,678.20.

"I wanted to turn around, get back on a plane, and get my money," Pegram went on. "If it had been a Magna track, I guarantee I would have." Insert laughs. "I sent the ticket back to Captain Steve to get it cashed, then had some of my Indiana boys go pick it up and hold it."

Pegram took two earlier swings at the Juvenile when he was fifth at Hollywood Park with Johnbill in 1997 and up the track with the 35-1 Zippersup in 1996, when the Cup went to chilly Canada.

"Yeah, I've got a recollection of that," Pegram said. "It was probably the coldest I've ever been at the racetrack and the drunkest. Zito and McAnally were in the same barn with us, and the only reason their owners were coming around after the races was because we still had beer. 'Come on over . . . we didn't win nothing, but we've got beer!' "

It was Baffert's passion last year at Keeneland for the Smart Strike yearling who turned out to be Lookin at Lucky that prompted Pegram to pull the trigger at $475,000. Later, he brought in Carl Watson and Paul Weitman, his partners from Midnight Lute.

"Those guys love the game, they're low maintenance, and they get it," Pegram said. "It's nice to have partners who know that the only reason people talk to us is because the horses can't talk."

Last August at Saratoga Springs, Baffert capped his Hall of Fame induction speech with, "To end up here, you have to be either really really good, or really really lucky. And you're lookin' at lucky." At that point, the colt of the same name had won a maiden race at Hollywood Park and the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, then later added the Del Mar Futurity and the Norfolk Stakes. None of the wins was spectacular, but all of them dripped with a cool efficiency that promised bigger things to come.

"He is the real deal," Pegram said. "After we got him to California, Bobby said, 'You know those bad horses we bought the last four years? Forget about 'em. You got one that'll pay for them all.' "