Mike & Mary Ellen Pegram Honored

April 13, 2009
California Thoroughbred Horsemen
Honor Mike & Mary Ellen Pegram

Mike & Mary Ellen Pegram

All photos courtesy of Benoit Photo

Gregson Foundation dinner honors Mike & Mary Ellen Pegram

By Steve Schuelein

The timing of the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation benefit to honor Mike and Mary Ellen Pegram on April 13 could not have been better.

One week later, Pegram’s trainer, Bob Baffert, and his two-time champion filly, Silverbulletday, were elected to the Racing Hall of Fame, where they will be inducted during a ceremony at Saratoga on August 14.

But first, owner-breeder Pegram and his wife took center stage at Twin Palms in Pasadena where they were feted by over 350 guests for their contributions to the racing industry.

The benefit, hosted by California Thoroughbred Trainers, raised about $100,000 for the Foundation, the purpose of which is to improve the quality of life for California thoroughbred industry backstretch workers and their immediate families.

Pegram with 2008 Grant Recipient Teresa Osorio.
She is a student at Cal State Northridge, majoring in Kinesiology.

Since its inception nine years ago, the Foundation has raised about $2.8 million, most of which is used for scholarships and backstretch programs. Trainer Gregson was the driving force in the creation of the Foundation, which was later named in his memory.

Pegram, who convinced Baffert to make the switch from quarter horses to thoroughbreds with him in 1988, has become one of the leading owners in the sport during the last two decades.

His red and gold silks have been carried not only by Silverbulletday–filly champion in 1998 and 1999 with victories including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Kentucky Oaks–but also 3-year-old champion Real Quiet following victories in the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and 2007 sprint champion Midnight Lute following the first of two Breeders’ Cup Sprint victories.

Having a great time!
L-R, Joe Harper (President,
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club),
Mike Pegram, Jim Cassidy (President,
California Thoroughbred Trainers),
and Jenine Sahadi (President,
Edwin J.Gregson Foundation).

Pegram has churned out almost as many stakes winners as hamburgers at his thriving McDonald’s franchises, too many to be mentioned in this space. And he has done it all with a casual style that has won over friends and admirers.

The program was emceed by Trevor Denman with colorful commentary provided by friends Brad McKinzie, Los Alamitos consultant, racecaller Frank Mirahmadi, and Baffert.

Baffert wondered how he would have ever switched to thoroughbreds without the support and encouragement of Pegram. “You need three things to be successful in this business: passion, bankroll and stomach,” said Baffert of his favorite owner. “When I got down, he lifted me back up.”

The Foundation was delighted to have a few
2008 Scholarship Recipients in attendance.
L-R: Jim Cassidy (CTT President),
Roberto Mora, Jesus Morfin,
Jenine Sahadi (Foundation President),
Samuel Almaraz, Leigh Ann Howard
(Gregson Board Member), and Saul V. Marquez.

Pegram explained why he selected the white-haired Arizona native as his trainer. “I know that you lose more than you win, and I wanted to be with somebody I could have fun with.”

Pegram expressed gratitude for the honor. “I’m very humbled to see the people I’ve followed up here as recipient of this award,” said Pegram in deference to previous winners. “My father told me to keep myself in the best of company and my horses in the worst of company, and I’ve been lucky with both.” Pegram joked about his attire. “I wore black because I was told there would be more people here tonight than there would be for my funeral,” he quipped.

Pegram emphasized the importance of the Gregson Foundation. “If we take care of the kids on the backside, nothing but good can happen,” he said. One of the recipients is the daughter of Jim and Dana Barnes–assistant and past exercise rider, respectively, for Baffert–who is a political science major at UC San Diego with an eye toward law school.

The Foundation has enabled more than 80 individuals to attend college. New grant recipients last year were Joseph Aragon, Samuel Almaraz, Jenee Brittney Barnes, Elizabeth Contreras, Noel Contreras Flores, Luciano Gonzalez, Maria Isabel Landeros Trujillo, Jesus Morfin, Roberto Mora, Teresa Osorio, Kevin Panian, and David Tellez.

Mike & Mary Ellen Pegram

By Jay Hovdey

About the last thing Mike Pegram needs is to be stuck in front of an adoring crowd and told what a great guy he is, what a fine example he has set, and how much he’s meant to the Thoroughbred racing world.

Besides, he gets that at home all the time.

But sometimes it just feels like the right thing to do to ignore such protests of modesty and torch up the spotlight, which is why Pegram and his wife, Mary Ellen, are being honored at the 2009 benefit evening for the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation and its efforts to provide scholarships for the children of California’s backstretch community.

In the case of Mike Pegram, there is much for which to be grateful. Without him, horse racing would have been a dull and dreary place these past 18 years or so.

Without Mike Pegram, there would have been no Bob Baffert to watch as he surfed the wild waves of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, and all the rest of the best events the game has to offer.

Without Mike Pegram, there would have been no reason for The Jockey Club to have created its special Department of Troublesome Names, through which have passed such Pegram creations as Love on the Rail, Letthebighossroll, Icecoldbeeratreds, Woke Up Dreamin, and Preachinatthebar.

Without Mike Pegram, there would have been no way of knowing that by spending anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000 on yearling Thoroughbreds, you could have just as much fun and win just as much money as you could forking over tens of millions.

And without Mike Pegram, the lesson might have been lost, or at least temporarily misplaced, that anyone fortunate enough to participate in the sport of Thoroughbred racing had better spend half his time thanking his lucky stars, and the other half making sure the game was a better place for being there.

Michael Edward Pegram was born in Fort Knox, Ky. (sadly, nowhere near the gold), and raised across the river, in Southern Indiana. Later on, he won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, the Dubai World Cup, and raced champions Real Quiet, Silverbulletday, and Midnight Lute.

What happened in between is the stuff of those old Horatio Alger tales, wherein the boy from the wrong side of the tracks writes his own rules and kicks butt in the business world. As a young man, Pegram thought his dad had a good idea about owning a McDonald’s franchise. About 40 restaurants later, in the Great Northwest and then Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, the kid from Gibson County won the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Dubai World Cup.

And the thing about Pegram is…he makes it look just that easy, even though it’s not, and the worst thing anyone has ever done is mistake Pegram’s aw shucks, good ol’ boy, “I’ll tell you what” demeanor for someone who can be taken for a ride. The Pegram empire, in both fast food restaurants and Thoroughbred racing, should be textbook material for how to do things extremely well and leave good karma behind.

In that spirit, Pegram has become an industry leader, but only by example. Group thinking has never been his strong suit.

“You remember the horse I had named Commitisize?” Pegram asked. The answer was yes, of course. He won a bunch of stakes, at two, three and four, including the Hollywood Prevue, the Cinema, and the Arcadia Handicap.

“I named him after McDonald’s,” Pegram went on, “because that’s all they wanted to do, was form another committee, and you’d sit there and ‘commitisize’ about what to do next. Horse racing took some lessons from that, because that’s what they do. They just change the initials and you get the same old faces commitisizing.”

Pegram lives and breathes his healthy skepticism of institutionalized power, while breaking down artificial barriers of class and privilege when and where he can. His closest racing friends are not named Phipps and Whitney. They answer to names like Captain Steve, Buck Wheat and Judge Eddie. When he won the 1996 Kentucky Derby, with the stands full of his Indiana homeboys, Pegram wore crisp blue jeans, along with a open-collared white dress shirt and snappy black jacket, although, more recently, he has switched to black jeans for such events–a concession to formality.

So when it comes to holding still while a room full of his fellow racetrackers makes a fuss, Pegram can be relied upon to deflect attention elsewhere.

Jim Cassidy with Jill & Bob Baffert.

“I’ll tell you what, there’s only reason why I’m letting this happen, and it’s because of those kids,” Pegram said of the Gregson Foundation benefit. “The kids coming along in the next generation need to do a whole lot better job with our sport than than the grownups have done, and anything that gives them a shot is well worth whatever we can give it.

“I’ll never forget when Trudy McCaffery came to me with the idea of Kids to the Cup,” Pegram said, referring to the now defunct program that gave young fans the opportunity to witness the game’s biggest events. “I told her then, “Count me in. You’re on the right track.” Any time you can do something for kids, you’re heading the right direction. If you take care of those kids, the kids will take care of you. Just like the horses.”

Pegram, who has never had a trainer other than Bob Baffert, had only a cordial, nodding acquaintance with the late Eddie Gregson, in whose memory the Gregson Foundation was established. Their bond, though, was obvious, as brothers in the blood of the Kentucky Derby. Gregson won his in 1982, with Gato del Sol.

“I did not go–I was up in Washington at the time–but I remember that ol’ gray baby coming down the stretch with Eddie D,” said Pegram, who’d been going to Derbies since he was a kid. “I was always a Delahoussaye fan anyway.”

And what do you know. Ten years later, on a bright afternoon at Gulfstream Park, here comes Eddie D. again on another ol’ gray baby–this one named Thirty Slews–to give Pegram his first turn in Thoroughbred racing’s center ring by winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park. In 2007 and 2008, he won two more Breeders’ Cup Sprints with Midnight Lute, a son of Real Quiet.

“When it comes to Thoroughbreds, I’ve been the luckiest man alive,” Pegram said. “And I’m sure Eddie Gregson would be the first to tell you, it’s all about the horses. We’re just passing through

“It’s great that Eddie is remembered for winning the Derby,” Pegram added. “But it’s even greater that his name goes along with the work of this foundation, and all the kids it helps.”

Midnight Lute

Following are a few highlights of the Pegram’s
career in thoroughbred horseracing:
Provided courtesy of Santa Anita Park

  • First stakes winner: Broadway’s Top Gun in 1990 Ladbroke Futurity at Golden Gate.
  • First Grade I winner: Thirty Slews in 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
  • Came within a nose of first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978 when Real Quiet was overtaken by Victory Gallop in 1998 Belmont Stakes following victories over his rival in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
  • Real Quiet, a $17,000 yearling purchase, finished second to Indian Charlie over Victory Gallop and Indian Charlie in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Quiet American was nicknamed “The Fish,” a term used by pinhookers at the 1996 Keeneland September yearling sale to describe Real Quiet’s sleek stature. Following his near- Triple Crown, Real Quiet won the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pimlico Special in 1999. He was retired after being injured when preparing for Del Mar’s Pacific Classic.
  • Captain Steve won the 2001 Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in February, and then captured the world’s richest race, $6-million Dubai World Cup, one month later. The Son of Fly So Free won Grade I races in each of the three seasons he raced, including the 1999 Hollywood Futurity and 2000 Swap Stakes. Captain Steve was retired in 2001 as No. 6 on the all-time list of America-bred earners, with $6,828,356. He was purchased by the Japan Racing Association for $5 million. Named after a Louisville police officer, Captain Steve was retired with a record of 9-3-7 from 25 career starts.
  • Scored second Breeders’ Cup victory when Silverbulletday used her late kick to defeat stable mate Excellent Meeting in 1998 Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. First Breeders’ Cup winner was 1992 Sprint winner Thirty Slews, owned in partnership with Dr. James Steelman, Denny Boer, and Mitch Degroot. Named for the $30,000 purchase price, Thirty Slews was the first Thoroughbred purchased at auction by trainer Bob Baffert.
  • Banner year in 1998 concluded with Eclipse Awards for Real Quiet (3-year-old) and Silverbulletday (2-year-old filly) and earnings of $4,023,543 to rank sixth nationally from 30 wins with 106 starters.
  • Registered first Grade I win in New York in 1999 when Silverbulletday captured Alabama Stakes at Saratoga by nine lengths. The Silver Deputy filly recorded 12 stakes wins among 13 career victories, four in Grade I events. Her other Grade I victories were achieved in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, Belmont’s Gazelle Handicap, and Keeneland’s Ashland Stakes in 1999.
  • Isitingood, co-owned with Terry Henn, beat Dr. Fager’s world record mark for the mile by one-fifth of a second in The Bart at Santa Anita on Feb. 6, 1997. He covered the distance in 1:32.05 on turf. Atticus would shave another one fifth off that mark one month later, running one mile in 1:31.89.
  • Isitingood set a 1 1/8-mile track record (1:48.2/5) at the Fair Grounds in winning the 1997 New Orleans Handicap. Stop The Bleeding, who was co-owned with Bob Roth, set a track record in 1992 of 1:13 4/5 for 6½ furlongs at Hollywood Park. In 1994, she set the 5½–furlongs record of 1:01 3/5 at Bay Meadows.
L-R: Thoroughbred owners Paul Weitman and Brett
Lindenbaum, trainer Bob Baffert, Frank Mirahmadi
(racecaller), Karl Watson ( Thoroughbred owner), Mrs.
Bob (Jill) Baffert, P.A. Baffert (brother of Bob Baffert),
& Brad McKinzie (Los Alamitos Racecourse consultant).
  • Born Feb 16, 1952, in Fort Knox, Ky. Raised in Princeton, Ind. Son, Tim; daughter, Amy.
  • Owns 22 McDonald’s franchises in Washington.
  • Became interested in racing when attending races as a young boy at Ellis Park.
  • First horses owned were Quarter Horses in partnership with his father in the late 1970s. Met trainer Bob Baffert through Hal Earnhardt, an Arizona-based car dealer.
  • Urged Baffert to switch to Thoroughbreds and joined him in transition in 1988.
  • Known for naming his horses in an unconventional manner.
  • Received 1998 Big Sport of Turfdom Award as presented by Turf Publicists of America.

Major Stakes Wins

  • Triple Crown Wins
  • Kentucky Derby (GI-CD) – Real Quiet (1998)
  • Preakness (GI–Pim) – Real Quiet (1998)
  • Breeders’ Cup Wins
  • Juvenile Fillies (GI) – Thirty Slews (1992-GP)
  • Sprint (GI) – Thirty Slews (1992-GP)
  • Major Stakes Wins
  • Alabama (GI-Sar) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • Alcibiades (GII-Kee) – Silverbulletday (1998)
  • Answer Do (Hol) – Gibson County (2001)
  • Arcadia H. (GII) – Commitisize (1999)
  • Aristides BC H. (GIII-CD) – High Stakes Player (1997)
  • Ashland (GI-Kee) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • Audrey Skirball-Kenis (Hol) – Pussycat Doll (2005)
  • Beau Brummel (Fpx) – The Texas Tunnel (1996)
  • Bing Crosby H. (GI-Dmr) – Thirty Slews (GIII-1992)
  • Black-Eyed Susan (GII-Pim) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • B. Thoughtful (Hol) – Censored (1999)
  • Buick Turf Classic (LS) – Commitisize (2000)
  • California BC – Gibson County (1999)
  • California Cup Sprint H. (OT) – Letthebighossroll (1991)
  • Cascapedia H. – Arches of Gold (1993)
  • Cinema BC H. (GIII-Hol) – Commitisize (1998)
  • Clark H. (GI-CD) – Isitingood (GIII-1996)
  • Count Fleet Sprint H. (GIII-OP) – High Stakes Player (1997)
  • Davona Dale (GIII-FG) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • Debutante (GII-CD) – Silverbulletday (1998)
  • Del Mar Futurity (GII-Dmr) – Icecoldbeeratreds (2002)
  • Don B. (BM) – Sailinwithcaptain (2002)
  • Donn H. (GI-GP) – Captain Steve (2001)
  • Doubledogdare (Kee) – Silverbulletday (2000)
  • Dubai World Cup (GI-NAS) – Captain Steve (2001)
  • Emerald Downs BC Derby (EmD) – Preachinatthebar (2006)
  • Fair Grounds Oaks (GII-FG) – Silverbulletday (GIII-1999)
  • Fantasy Girl (Dmr) – Hookedonthefeelin (2000)
  • Fayette (GII-Kee) – Isitingood (1996)
  • Frank E. Kilroe Mile H. (GI) – Commitisize (GII-2000)
  • Gazelle H. (GI-Bel) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • Golden Gate Derby (GG) – Danthebluegrassman (GIII-2002)
  • Golden Rod (GII-CD) – Silverbulletday (GIII-1998)
  • Gold Rush (GG) – Danthebluegrassman (2001)
  • Graduation (Dmr) – Arabian Light (2000); Icecoldbeeratreds (2002)
  • Harry Henson (Hol) – Letthebighossroll (1991)
  • Hollywood Futurity (GI-Hol) – Real Quiet (1997); Captain Steve (1999)
  • Hollywood Gold Cup (GI-Hol) – Real Quiet (1999)
  • Hollywood Prevue (GIII-Hol) – Commitisize (1997)
  • Humana Distaff H. (GI-CD) – Pussycat Doll (2006)
  • Iowa Derby (PrM) – Captain Steve (2000)
  • Kentucky Cup Classic H. (GII-TP) – Captain Steve (2000)
  • Kentucky Jockey Club (GII-CD) – Captain Steve (1999)
  • Kentucky Oaks (GI-CD) – Silverbulletday (1999)
  • La Brea (GI) – Arches of Gold (GIII-1992); Hookedonthefeelin (1999); Pussycat Doll (2005)
  • Landaluce (Hol) – Hookedonthefeelin (GII-1998)
  • Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (GI-Kee) – Captain Steve (GII-1999)
  • Lone Star Derby (GIII-LS) – Wanna Runner (2006)
  • Longacres Mile H. (GIII-EmD) – Isitingood (1996)
  • Miss Preakness (Pim) – Hookedonthefeelin (1999)
  • Monmouth BC Oaks (GIII-Math) – Silverbulletday (GII-1999)
  • New Orleans H. (GII-FG) – Isitingood (GIII-1997)
  • On Trust H. (Hol) – Argolid (1995)
  • Palos Verdes H. (GII) – High Stakes Player (GII-1997)
  • Pimlico Special H. (GI-Pim) – Real Quiet (1999)
  • Princess (Hol) – Favored One (GII-1995)
  • Pro Or Con H. – Fun In Excess (1998); Censored (1999)
  • Run for the Roses – Fun In Excess (1998)
  • San Felipe (GII) – Preachinattheber (2004)
  • Santa Ynez (GIII) – Queen of Money (1997)
  • Silver Spur (LS) – Miss Wineshine (1999)
  • Smile Sprint H. (GII-Crc) – Woke Up Dreamin (2005)
  • Sorrento (GIII-Dmr) – Silverbulletday (GII-1998)
  • Swaps (GII-Hol) – Captain Steve (GI-2000)
  • Texas Mile (GIII-LS) – Isintingood (1997); Preachinatthebar (2006)
  • The Bart – Isitingood (1991)
  • Tokyo City Cup H. (GIII) – Preachinatthebar (2006)
  • Torrey Pines (Dmr) – Pussycat Doll (2005)­
  • True North BC H. (GII-Bel) – Woke Up Dreamin (2005)
  • WinStar Derby (Sun) – Wanna Runner (2006)