05/17/2010 11:00PM

Pegram looks for a little luck


The last time Mike Pegram won the Preakness, the lights went out at Pimlico, there was an electrical fire near the jockeys' room, and folks were wandering around in dark hallways and stairwells, trying to find someplace to bet.

In truth, the power failed a few hours before Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet carried Pegram's colors to victory in the 1998 version of Maryland's most famous horse race, so there is no direct connection. Still, just to make sure, Pegram gave it a few years, and now that the coast is clear and power has been fully restored, he returns Saturday to find out if Lookin At Lucky, the beaten Derby favorite, can rebound in Preakness No. 135.

"About all I can remember is that it was a hundred degrees that day, and we were just burning up," Pegram said Thursday morning, on his way to the traditional Preakness Alibi Breakfast. "I spent the earlier part of the day in the infield tents, and we weren't affected like they were in the clubhouse and grandstand. Then I was back at the barn by the time they lost all the power.

"I can remember walking into a dark restroom right after the race, being scared I was gonna get mugged," Pegram added. "And the press conference was back at the barn, with me sitting on the fence with a case of cold beer."

The recorded temperature that day was 92 degrees, with 52 percent humidity. Stir in a crowd of 91,122, with a healthy percentage getting shut out at the windows, and you had a recipe for any kind of a disaster. As it turned out, fans were for the most part too hot to be anything but frustrated, while being forced to watch races they couldn't bet on.

Pegram, a Kentucky native raised in southern Indiana, supplied a little heat of his own that year at the Derby, where he fulfilled one of those childhood fantasies that fall into the same category as walking on the moon, marrying a movie star, or getting elected president. Kids are encouraged to dream such dreams, and then learn to deal with the realities of life later.

But then Pegram bought a few racehorses, and the dream of a Derby got a little more vivid. Instead of unthinkable, it became merely impossible, which pretty much accounts for the dazed, deer-who-just-got-hit-by-a-bus look on his face in the moments following Real Quiet's victory at Churchill Downs.

Unless it happens to you every week or so, such moments require time to sink in and properly savor. But the Kentucky Derby is also a TV show, and TV shows always need to hype the next episode while the audience is warm. When asked the obligatory post-race question, "On to Baltimore?" Pegram wisecracked, "Where's that?" The folks back in Charm City were not pleased.

But by the time Pegram made one apologetic lap of the Baltimore media, not to mention a couple of key watering holes, all was forgiven. He was their kind of guy, and Real Quiet was a Baltimore kind of horse, a $17,000 bargain yearling and blue collar to the core. The following year, Pegram and Real Quiet returned to Baltimore to win the Pimlico Special in a barn-burner over fellow Californian Free House.

Now, Pegram comes to the Preakness with a colt of a little more pedigree and a lot less karma, unless bad karma counts. Lookin At Lucky, the 2-year-old champ of 2009, has suffered through such rough trips in the Rebel Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Kentucky Derby this year that Pegram was thinking about a name change.

"After that first eighth of a mile in the Derby, I can live through anything," Pegram said, referring to the way Lookin At Lucky came out of the 1-hole at Churchill Downs and spent the opening 200 yards of the race bouncing off the inside rail. Lookin At Lucky had two horses beat by the time they hit the first turn, then weaved his way through the field to finish sixth, beaten about seven lengths by Super Saver.

"He's relentless," Pegram said. "He shows up every time. But that's the reason the Kentucky Derby is the toughest race in the world to win. Anything that can happen will happen."

It is not in the nature of guys like Pegram and his trainer, Bob Baffert, to sit idly by and let themselves be tossed around by winds of chance. And so they replaced Garrett Gomez, who had ridden Lookin At Lucky in all nine of his races, with Martin Garcia, a California rider on the rise, who is represented by Pegram's brother, Jim. Earlier this year, Garcia won the Santa Anita Handicap aboard Misremembered for the Baffert stable.

"Anybody who's watched the last three races knows you've got a real good horse and a real good jockey, but something's not going right," Pegram said. "You hate doing it, but sometimes you've got to mix it up to change your luck. That's just life."

Not that fate has anything to do with anything in horse racing, but sometimes a fired jockey rises from the ashes. The most dramatic example took place at Hollywood Park in 1973, when owner Mary F. Jones took Bill Shoemaker off her champion Cougar II after a disappointing loss and replaced him with Laffit Pincay for the Hollywood Gold Cup. Shoemaker ended up on Cougar's stablemate Kennedy Road, and guess who won the race? Cougar and Pincay finished third.

Since it's hard to keep a four-time national earnings champion like Gomez on the bench, Wayne Lukas snapped him up to ride Dublin, who finished third in the Rebel to Lookin At Lucky and seventh, just a half-length behind Pegram's colt, in the Derby. Will Pegram be looking over his shoulder on Saturday? He laughed.

"I figure as long as we can keep Calvin Borel on the inside of us and Dublin on the outside of us, we should have a decent trip," the owner said.

This time, finally, he might get lucky.