by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

You might beat Mike Pegram on the racetrack, but you'll never stop him from having a good time. Pegram, who grew up in southern Indiana and cut his teeth at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., now is a self-proclaimed “West Coast guy” with homes in Del Mar, Calif., Arizona and Nevada. He developed a successful string of McDonald's franchises, first in the Seattle, Wash., area, and later in Arizona, then got into the casino business in May 2008 with the opening of Bodines Casino in Carson City, Nev. He opened the Carson Valley Inn Casino in Minden, Nev., earlier this year.

As one of the co-owners of last year's 2-year-old male champion and this year's Preakness winner, Lookin At Lucky, Pegram, 58, is one of the most prominent and successful owners in the sport. Horses he's campaigned have won, among other races, the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, Dubai World Cup, and several Breeders' Cups.

While the Preakness winner, a May 27 foal, is settled back into his home track at Santa Anita Park, Pegram, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Martin Garcia will celebrate Lookin At Lucky's “birthday” this Friday at Pegram's two Nevada casinos. Meet and greet opportunities for racing fans are scheduled, first at the Carson Valley Inn Casino from 10:30-11:45 a.m., and then from noon-1:115 p.m. at the racebook in Bodines Casino.

His infectious laugh and good-natured approach to the sport may be his calling, but there is a serious business side to Pegram, and he makes no secret of the fact he is worried about the future of the sport he loves, particularly in California, where his racing operation is based. He spoke with the Paulick Report in a wide-ranging interview that will be presented in two parts. Part two runs next Wednesday.

Tell me a little about the promotion you're doing this week to celebrate Lookin at Lucky's “birthday.”

I'm kind of a new boy in town in the Carson Valley community I now live in, but the folks there have gotten so enamored with the horse. They said it was like a morgue when he got wiped out in the Kentucky Derby and the place absolutely erupted when he won the Preakness. I thought it was unique that he wasn't even three years old yet. So I got Bobby and Martin Garcia to come over. We thought we'd give Carson Valley a little taste of horse racing. We wanted to put the human connections with the horse because these people supported us so much. It also will bring some awareness to racing, and I've never heard of a birthday party for a horse before. When you're in the circus, you've got to get a new act now and then.

What is it about horse racing, despite all the current challenges, that keeps you going?

Boy, I've asked myself that question a lot recently. It's the human element that you get in horse racing that you don't get anywhere else. You've got racetrack characters like Fat Eddie (a constant presence at Southern California tracks). You've got the thing where the man with the most money doesn't win. How many people have you seen come in and try to buy the game? Can't be done. You have the Cinderella stories.

And then it all comes back to the horse. Every little girl you've ever seen always falls in love with a horse, and I guess we've all got a little girl in us. It's a rush. I had so many people tell me they never saw me so happy when Lookin At Lucky won the Preakness. And you always feel better when it's about someone else. Lucky got to show what he could do after not being able to do that in the Derby because of all the trouble he had. There's nothing like seeing your kids do well–in little league, kids soccer, whatever. How proud they make you. You get the same feeling with a horse. You go out in the business world and deal with stuff, then you go to the racetrack and see the characters and you see the horses, and it brings that hope and sense of pride. That's the reason I keep owning horses.

I've dug deeply on this. I'm wondering if I want to be the last one around to turn out the lights–especially in California. There's only one thing that could ever get me to move out of the West—and that one thing would be horse racing.

What are some of the things about racing today that make you just shake your head?

Well, here we are in California. Hollywood Park announced a long time ago they will lock up. When that happens, you can give the dates to Santa Anita and Del Mar, but where are you going to put the horses? Nowhere. Who's working on that? Try nobody. That's one piece. Second piece: I'm tired of hearing Frank Stronach talking about the horsemen's bill of rights. I want to hear about his 1998 plans where he was going to do all this grandiose crap.  That frustrates me. I don't like having my future messed up by someone else.

I don't know the man, but John Ed Anthony said at the Jockey Club Round Table in a speech he gave a long time ago, “I don't where we're going to be racing, but we'll find a place, even if we have to watch them at a country track from the back of our pick-up trucks.” Truer words were never spoken, and here we are today and we are getting pretty close to backing up our trucks to the old dirt tracks and watching from there. There will always be horses racing, but it's just a question of in what form.

Racing is an American tradition. I just don't know how we screwed up an American tradition. There are some bright spots, but California is very, very troubling. There is no foresight on anybody's part. There's none on the Kentucky legislature's part, either. You could not make up what's happened in Kentucky. And why is that? One is Churchill Downs' relationship with the state, and the other is that Keeneland is an associaton that always took the safe way. The last thing we need is someone playing safe. We need major changes for survival.

You and Los Alamitos owner Dr. Edward Allred made a proposal a few years ago to expand Los Alamitos and make it a viable replacement for Hollywood Park. Why did that fall on deaf ears with the California Horse Racing Board?

Two things happened there.  No. 1, we had a great plan and yes we got ignored. No doubt. No. 2, Doc Allred was upfront with me. He said he did not want Hollywood Park to close until they were ready to go. That was his personal sentiments. He did not want to lobby to take away Hollywood Park's dates. That's where me and Doc Allred differed in our opinions. I wanted to lobby the CHRB to take away those dates. I didn't have anything personal against Hollywood Park, but it would have been the right to do.

That happened right after Hurricane Katrina. No one likes going to a graveyard. Everyone knows Hollywood Park is dead. They've stopped reinvesting. Hollywood Park has the same owners as Bay Meadows and the same thing happened up there: it just sat there. Horse racing became a joke in Northern California. There was no reinvestment, and handle and attendance went down.

It ain't the economy killing Hollywood Park, it's Hollywood Park killing Hollywood Park. What have our leaders done? They've said, “That's OK.” And it's not OK. Unless something happens quickly, California is going to be dead. You've got a man (Dennis Mills, the CEO of MI Developments, which now owns Santa Anita) that comes in and cancels the lease with Oak Tree, for his own personal gain. Not because Oak Tree did anything wrong. And everybody says, “That's OK.” It's not OK.

Your relationship with Bob Baffert goes back 25 years. What advice can you give owners about keeping an owner-trainer relationship alive for so long?

Treat 'em like family. When you're like family, it doesn't mean you don't have problems, but you learn from each other. Learn to understand. You've got to have the trust and the confidence and the belief in each other. When you have trust and confidence, it will get you through the bad times.

People are always going to have different opinions, but you live through those things. When you don't have trust and confidence, that's when things go sideways. I would never tell my kids or my brother how to run their businesses. Why would I tell Bobby how to run his business?

Did you have any input in the decision to run Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness and now not go to the Belmont?

I throw my two cents in on occasions, and may go a year without offering my two cents, then I may go four times in a week. There's a time for stuff and when I do offer my opinion, there's usually fact-based reasons I'm doing this. If there's a tie, Bobby's the one who is sleeping with those animals, not me. Fortunately, he needs the money more money than I do. That's one thing about racing that's right. At least it rewards success.

Where do you think we'll see Lookin At Lucky next?

The Haskell will be the most logical spot. He could make the Belmont, but I remember  (Derby/Preakness winner) Real Quiet after the Belmont. He didn't run for another eight months. I don't want to see that.

Next Wednesday in the Paulick Report Forum brought to you by Breeders' Cup, Pegram talks in detail, comparing horse racing to the customer service and entertainment-oriented businesses he's run, and what he thinks horse racing needs to do to be more competitive.


Copyright © 2010, Ray Paulick


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