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Horse Racing

Pegram's Life Is Charmed as Close Friend of Baffert's

Horse racing: Though he doesn't own Silver Charm, his ties with the horse's trainer have him just as interested in Triple Crown shot.

June 02, 1997|BOB MIESZERSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two weeks after his last visit to New York, where Isitingood finished fifth in the Metropolitan Handicap, Mike Pegram will be back at Belmont Park on Saturday.

There is no place else the horse owner-breeder and man of many McDonald's restaurants--he owns 22 franchises in northern Washington--could possibly be on the day Silver Charm tries to become the first 3-year-old in 19 years and only the 12th to win the Triple Crown.

With, he says, beer in hand, Pegram, 45, will be hoping to witness history, and nobody will be happier if he does, even though he doesn't own even a fraction of Silver Charm.

The gray son of Silver Buck belongs to Bob and Beverly Lewis, and Pegram has become more than just a fan of their colt. In homage to Bob Lewis, the chairman of Foothill Beverage Company, an Anheuser-Busch distributor and the second-largest beer distributor in California, Pegram says he has switched beverages to a light beer from a certain St. Louis brewery.

What took Pegram to Churchill Downs and Pimlico last month, and is keeping him on the Triple Crown trail, is his kinship with Bob Baffert, Silver Charm's trainer.

They met more than 10 years ago, hit it off instantly and their fortunes have risen together.

With Baffert on the verge of becoming the 10th trainer to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year, he's still quick to credit Pegram for his original involvement with thoroughbreds after starting with quarter horses.

"I was fortunate enough that a guy like Mike got me involved," Baffert said. "My father put me through college and he thought he spent a lot of money on that, but Mike put me through thoroughbred training school and it cost him a lot more than my college education.

"We hit it off because we were close to the same age [Baffert is 44] and we're both very competitive. He loves racing and he loves the action. He's been really successful with [his restaurants] and pretty much everything else he's done, and he knew I always wanted to play at the top level and that's what he wants to do.

"I owe him so much. He gambled on me [in the switch to thoroughbreds]. We're like brothers."

Pegram can only picture what it will be like if Silver Charm wins again, but he knows how good it felt at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. It was especially sweet after Baffert's heartbreaking loss with Cavonnier in the 1996 Kentucky Derby.

"Bob said last year he knew [briefly] what it felt like to win the Derby, but I was sitting there with him and I knew [Cavonnier] had gotten beat," said Pegram, who lives in Mount Vernon, Wash.

"When [Silver Charm] won this year, I couldn't have been any happier than if I had won it myself. I was happier when Bob won the Derby than I was when Thirty Slews won the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and I didn't make nearly as much money.

"When someone is like family to you, well, I couldn't imagine being any higher. I got my thrill of a lifetime on the first Saturday of May in 1997."

Although Pegram's own chance for a shot at Derby glory was lost this year when Inexcessivelygood suffered a fatal injury in the stretch of the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., in late March, there have been a lot of successes in the sport for Pegram, a fan since he was a youngster growing up in Indiana.

Besides Isitingood, who held a world record for a mile on turf for a few weeks earlier this year and has earned more than $1 million, he has had--either alone or in partnership--many other stakes winners.

None was more prominent than Thirty Slews, the first thoroughbred Baffert bought at auction and who was named for his $30,000 sale price. Owned by Pegram, Dr. James Streelman, Denny Boer and Mitch Degroot, he scored an 18-1 upset in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint. Other important victories have been provided by Letthebighossroll, High Stakes Player, Arches Of Gold, Miss Gibson County, Argolid, Favored One and Broadway's Top Gun.

For the most part, it has been an enjoyable ride since Pegram met Baffert at a New Mexico quarter horse sale in 1986 through Hal Earnhardt, an Arizona car dealer and horse owner.

"After the sale, it looked like we were going to be stuck for a day in El Paso because of bad weather and the only place planes were flying was to Las Vegas," Pegram said. "So we flew to Vegas for a day and that's where I got to know him.

"There was just an instant chemistry there. There's a lot of similarities in our styles. He enjoys life and doesn't make things too complicated. He's laid back, but, [when necessary] he's money. If he was a basketball player, he'd want to be the guy that takes the last shot."

Two years after they first got together, the decision to switch to thoroughbreds was made, although Baffert, who did very well with quarter horses, didn't give them up entirely until late 1991.

Born in Fort Knox, Ky., Pegram became involved as an owner on a small scale with his father in the 1970s, but then got interested in quarter horses.

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