Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Is Mike Pegram’s Sphere of Influence Good for California Racing?
LOS ANGELES, April 2, 2013--Three-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert appears once again headed toward the scene of those triumphs together with his client, friend, and fellow Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) board member, Mike Pegram.
The two have taken the Triple Crown trail to Louisville on several occasions, and came within a nose of immortality with Real Quiet in 1998 and a second Preakness with Looking at Lucky 12 years later.
The late Jess Jackson’s dream was to campaign the offspring of his two champions, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra; both of whom were purchased prior to Triple Crown events with each winning the Preakness as well.
It seems Pegram has realized that dream and then some; breeding his way into this year’s Derby by mating of his own stellar performers, Midnight Lute to Silverbulletday, producing recent Sunland Derby winner Govenor Charlie.
Commenting on that victory to Jay Privman, the owner/breeder was guarded in his assessment.
‘"The Derby’s the hardest race in the world to win,” Pegram said. "We all get Derby Fever, and I’ve got it right now. But losing the Derby’s no fun" … "If he’s good enough, he’ll be there. It’ll be up to Bobby. "’
Initially I thought such hesitancy might be related to his Derby experience with Dantheblugrassman in 2002. That entry was a controversial one after the horse finished last in the Santa Anita Derby and was scratched the morning of the Kentucky Derby due to "cramping." Baffert ultimately won that Derby with another client’s entry, War Emblem.)
However, Pegram was very enthusiastic over another of his three-year-olds by that same sire. In a display of overwhelming force and/or fortune, Pegram took the Sunland Oaks on the Derby undercard with the filly Midnight Lucky.
Pegram is an amazing example of success spawning success -- a multiple McDonalds franchise mogul who parlayed a portion of his profits into horse racing and eventually casinos. His prominence and influence as an owner have evolved into power with his election as the current chairman of the TOC board of directors.
The most engaging account of Pegram’s ascension is Bill Finley’s from 2011, which the TOC uses as Pegram’s profile on its website.
The use of Finley’s piece on Pegram by the TOC seems as ironic as its subject appears heroic considering the turf writer’s position on the California takeout increase legislated in 2010 here, here, and here.
Despite all the "Ray Kroc-isms on customer service" alluded to in the profile, it’s fair to say that Pegram is more concerned with lowering the price of beer at the track than on lowering takeout. Interviewed recently on the Roger Stein radio show, Pegram made it clear he had no intention of giving up any of the legislated increase.
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that Pegram wields as much effective veto power over California racing as Governor Cuomo does over New York racing. Unlike the Governor, however, it’s clear that he loves the game and wants others to enjoy as much as he does. But it’s not easy rooting for someone who has his foot on your neck.
In a two-part interview from 2010 by Ray Paulick, Pegram provided an amusing but telling response when asked whether he had any input in the decision to run Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness and then not go to the Belmont: "… 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 than I do. That’s one thing about racing that’s right. At least it rewards success."
Parenthetically, Mr. Pegram, allow me this: That racing in California is certainly rewarding your successes, thanks to the legislated subsidy to leading owners paid for primarily by California-resident, recreational bettors ineligible for rebates.
Frankly, horseplayers are tired of your reducing our chances for success without improving the racing product in terms of field size and competitiveness. Our enjoyment comes from trying to beat a fair game that’s visibly beatable by other than professional bettors.
You have said that "… innovation is what is lacking." Then how about experimenting with lower takeout one pool at a time and see if handle gains of the magnitude shown by the Pick 5 are possible in "underperforming" pools?
And why not go a step further? Put recreational bettors on a level playing field with professionals by ensuring that every participant in any pari-mutuel pool is charged the same effective takeout rate like it used to be when racing was popular.
The only thing that seems to have eluded Pegram’s grasp is racetrack ownership. Searching the Internet revealed that he has unfruitfully pursued or entertained various forms of ownership involving the purchases of Ellis Park in 2003, Fairgrounds in 2004, Los Alamitos in 2005, and Del Mar in 2010. The latter two were motivated by the long-awaited closing of Hollywood Park whose redevelopment is finally expected to become reality.
Pegram recently said he was no longer interested in becoming a partner in Los Al but he’s still in the thick of determining suitable sites and planning for the transplanting of HOL racing elsewhere. Apparently not all California horsemen were happy with the way that process had been going. According to the Blood Horse, the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) are pushing for consideration of Fairplex" as a replacement racing/training facility once HOL is closed for good.
Without the L.A. County Fair in operation, would there be enough Fairplex attendance to bear witness that live races were actually being broadcast? In the latest "Alphonse and Gaston" routine by the two contending sites, Los Al withdrew from the competition, while leaving the door open. What will an environmental impact study say about the increase in horses, people, and traffic in the host city of Cypress -- as well as on the intersecting 405 and 605 freeways -- under a Los Al plan to run afternoons AND evenings?
In a recently distributed email, Harry Hacek wrote, "With the relief from a split meet at Fairplex Park and the Del Mar meeting Santa Anita would be positioned to put on the best of racing. To prepare for their premier winter meeting, and further replenish the turf course, Santa Anita could hold an exclusive dirt-only meeting in [place of] the Hollywood Park fall meet."
That suggested to me that if Fairplex can’t accommodate a mile dirt oval, then perhaps an outer seven furlong turf course might enable combined concurrent replacement meets without conflicting dates, assuming Santa Anita could still support a turf stakes schedule running only on weekends.
Baffert and Pegram have been the inspiration of bobblehead dolls for racetrack give-away promotions but it’s the bettors who are shaking their heads at the duo’s defiant denials that TOC policies support rather than deter dwindling handle, field sizes, and interest in racing.
Is the dominance of the TOC, which effectively prevents California racetracks from pricing their own product, combined with Pegram’s influence, good for racing in California? Or is it merely the bottom-line component of his success as a horse owner?