07/14/2010 5:23PM

Pegram won't sit still and watch California racing die

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Using somewhat coarser language, Lyndon Johnson like to describe his attitude toward political adversaries as preferring to have them inside his tent, directing their energies outward, rather than outside the tent, aiming in.

Mike Pegram, welcome to the tent.

Over the past 20 years, Pegram has established himself as a highly independent brand among racing’s most recognizeable owners. The success of such champions as Silverbulletday, Real Quiet, and Midnight Lute has given the free-wheeling Pegram an occasional platform from which to spread his personal gospel of the game, which includes such commandments as “Thou shalt enjoy thyself as much as possible” and “Honor thy horses and their sacrifice, for without them we are Nascar.” Or something like that.

Pegram was not a political creature, and aggressively so. It was tough enough sitting through sessions called by the corporate masters of the McDonald’s empire, of which he is a valuable franchise owner. He wasn’t about to subject himself to the same tortures in pursuit of his favorite pastime.

As a result, there were no horse racing alphabeticals trailing his name, no committee appointments, no organizations that required board meetings or group photos. Mike Pegram was not – and this will shock some people when they hear it – asked to become a member of The Jockey Club. Pegram figured, and rightly so, that he fulfilled his obligation to the sport by being a responsible citizen, answering media questions when asked, and buying the occasional round.

Well, sports fans, it’s a new day. Mike Pegram threw his Raybans into the ring for the recent election of Thoroughbred Owners of California board of directors, and came away with the highest vote total of the chosen three. (Current TOC chairperson Marsha Naify finished fourth, which knocked her off the board.)

Pegram was inspired to step forward, at least in part, by the impact left by the late Robert Lewis, Pegram’s friend and fellow owner who shared Bob Baffert as a trainer.

“It’s been a long time since the TOC has been effective, and the one guy who was most effective in that job was Bob Lewis,” Pegram said. “When he was chairman of the TOC, Bob built more concensus and got more things done in the late ‘90s than anything we’ve seen since.”

Beyond the challenges to the health of the sport presented by the economy, California racing has been facing competition from other regions as never before in its history. A number of Pegram’s fellow California owners have split their stables, sending horses to Eastern racetracks in search of higher prize money, at least in proportion to the value of particular runners, than California currently offers.

“It’s clear the two things we need most of all is more horses and more purse money,” Pegram said. “You look around and people should be dying to run their horses in California. But you look at the overnights, at the Hollywood park purses, and it just makes you want to cry. We saw the same pattern in Northern California, and we sure don’t want to repeat that history.

“I don’t care about national racing,” Pegram insisted. “I care about California racing, because without California racing there is no national racing, just like you need Kentucky to be healthy and New York to be healthy.

“Look at an owner like Wayne Hughes,” Pegram went on. “He’s from California and he’d rather run in California. Mace Siegel is from California and he’d rather run in California.”

Siegel, in fact, was one of the founding members of the TOC, along with the late Ed Friendly. Hughes, who built his Thoroughbred holdings on the strength of his ubiquitous Public Storage empire of warehouses, purchased the legendary Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.

“Mace has forgotten more about business than I’ll ever know and he’s fought this situation out here for a long time,” Pegram said. “Wayne’s success speaks for itself. And here they’ve both chosen to run a lot of their horses somewhere else.”

With Pegram on board, the TOC hierarchy will have a healthy representation of horse owners who have presented alternatives to racetrack ownership as well.

Sitting board members Arnold Zetcher and Brian Boudreau were part of a team tasked by the TOC to present an offer to buy Santa Anita Park from Magna Entertainment during its bankruptcy proceedings (the offer was rejected). Five years ago, Pegram and Dr. Edward Allred, from the Quarter Horse world, offered California racing with a $50 million plan to upgrade Los Alamitos and present a Thoroughbred meet as an alternative to the uncertain situations at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.

The Pegram-Allred proposal received no encouragement from the other players in the California mix, leaving Pegram no choice but to take his enthusiasm elsewhere. He has since opened a casino near Carson City, Nev., and is in the process of opening another nearby. His heart, though, remains in California’s racing scene.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but it ain’t the status quo,” Pegram said. “Smarter people than me have tried to solve it, I know. We’ve got so many good things in California that nobody else has, it’s time to focus on those things. I figure if you’re not willing to work toward a solution, then you ought to pick up your horses and leave California. And I do not want to do that.”