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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
Following are a few highlights of the Pegram’s
career in thoroughbred horseracing: Provided courtesy of Santa Anita Park
Major Stakes Wins