11/11/2005 12:00AM

Pegram ready for role as track mogul


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was tough enough to watch Bay Area weather descend upon Hollywood Park for its opening under its new ownership, the Bay Meadows Land Co. Then, just to rub in the irony, who should walk off with two muddy races on last Wednesday's opening day card but Mike Pegram, the man who stands ready, willing, and able to replace Hollywood Park on the Southern California racing circuit.

Victories by Pegram's 2-year-old colt Only in Louisiana (a not-so-inside joke) and 4-year-old campaigner Preachinatthebar set the stage for an appearance on Sunday by the best filly in his stable, Pussycat Doll. A daughter of Pegram's 1998 Kentucky Derby winner, Real Quiet, Pussycat Doll tops the field for the $60,000 Audrey Skirball-Kenis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the only surface available.

The race is named for a woman renowned in the Los Angeles area for her philanthropic deeds, which included numerous endowments for the arts and medical research. With her husband, former Hollywood Park board member Charles Kenis, Skirball-Kenis raced such major stakes winners as Super Quercus and Mazel Trick. She died in June of 2002.

The first two runnings of the Skirball-Kenis were on the grass, that mysterious substance grown only by magical gnomes under enchanted toadstools deep in the Forest of Exotic Horticulture. But with no grass racing at Hollywood, the switch to the dirt works just fine for Pussycat Doll.

Last winter at Santa Anita, barely two weeks after a maiden win for trainer Bob Baffert, Pussycat Doll tipped her hand by finishing second to champion Sweet Catomine in the Santa Ysabel Stakes. Granted, the champ was hitting on about six of her eight cylinders that day, but Pegram's filly hung tough, and it was a shame she was sidelined after the race until late summer.

Pussycat Doll came back with a flourish to win the Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar. The Indiana Oaks was her next start - based half on Pegram's Indiana roots and half on the $400,000 purse - but his filly could not handle the hairpin turns of Hoosier Park's seven-furlong layout, and she trotted home a distracted fifth under Victor Espinoza.

"We had to take the shot, but Bobby was scared to death that might happen," Pegram said Friday morning from his Phoenix base of operations, where he owns a chain of McDonald's franchises. "Shipping in there, her first time on the road, and she's still just plain green. Victor said going into the first turn he knew she was done. She never settled."

Life is never really "settled" for Pegram anyhow. He's a one-man rodeo with irons in several fires, not the least of which is a dead serious bid to assume a major role as a racetrack operator on the Southern California racing circuit.

Pegram and Dr. Ed Allred, who owns Los Alamitos Race Course in the city of Cypress, have put on the table a plan to upgrade the suburban Orange County track with a mile oval, a turf course and a training track, new barns, and a renovated facility in order to host a major Thoroughbred meeting.

With the Bay Meadows Land Co. publicly committed to only three years of operation at Hollywood before the track is scrapped and the property developed - unless certain longshot legislative goals are met in Sacramento - the California calendar is on the brink of its first major upheaval in decades.

Pegram, a breeder as well as an owner, has been an outspoken advocate of local, private racetrack ownership in the face of the wave of absentee corporate interests - read Magna and Churchill Downs - that have been snapping up tracks all over the country in recent years.

At a California racing symposium hosted by Harris Farm last month, Pegram hit upon the theme in his keynote address.

"I told them that for seven days, I thought I owned a racetrack in Louisiana," he said, referring to his near-purchase of Fair Grounds in 2004. Churchill Downs Inc., former owners of Hollywood Park, ended up with the New Orleans track.

"I was going to be in competition with Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, and it scared the living bejesus out of me," Pegram said. "I laid awake thinking, what did I just get myself into? How do you compete with Southern California? They got the racing, the facilities, the weather. I kept asking myself, 'What's my edge?' And it came back to one thing - local ownership.

"The racetrack has two customers - its fans, and the local owners and breeders who supply the horses," Pegram said. "You need a local ownership to respond to their needs, to really know what they want, because without them you're dead."

Pegram said that he and Allred are continuing with their plans to remake Los Alamitos into a mainstream Thoroughbred emporium, even as the rest of the industry flirts with other alternatives - such as Fairplex Park, or Native American partnerships - to fill the expected Hollywood void.

"We're still in talks with the city," Pegram said. "We have Parsky Associates [the architectural and planning firm] doing all the engineering, getting everything laid out, so that by next spring we'll have gone through all the hurdles. The one thing we did not want to do is make promises we couldn't keep.

"After that, it will be up to the industry," Pegram added. "I just hope I get a chance to grow grass in Cypress."