Mike Pegram may have moved from Arizona to Nevada seven years ago, but his good fortune as far as owning good horses hasn't changed a bit.
The winning owner of the 1998 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Real Quiet is back this year with Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner Hoppertunity, trained by Pegram's longtime buddy Bob Baffert. The colt is co-owned by the "Car Boys," Paul Weitman and Karl Watson, with whom Pegram has owned standouts such as champions Midnight Lute and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Lookin At Lucky .
Pegram also has a connection to likely Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorite California Chrome, who defeated Hoppertunity by 5 1/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Since he branched out from an owner in the franchise restaurant business to now owning two casinos in Nevada, Pegram's Carson Valley Inn casino in Minden, NV., has seen two steady customers—California Chrome's co-owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn.
"He's in there every weekend playing the horses," Pegram said April 30 on the Churchill Downs backside Derby week. "Steve is a good ol' boy and they love the sport. It's one of those stories you can't believe, breeding and owning a horse like that."
As for his new home in the Gardnerville/Minden area, Pegram is amazed at the friendly pace of life.
"It's the Mayberry of the West," he said with his trademark laugh. "It's the nicest place—even the people at the post office are nice up there."
Hoppertunity, who will be ridden in the Derby by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, represents Pegram's fourth starter in the Derby, after Real Quiet, Lookin At Lucky (who drew the impossible one-post), and Captain Steve. Out of the Unaccounted For mare Refugee, the Any Given Saturday colt is a half brother to multiple grade I winner Executiveprivilege who broke his maiden at second asking for Baffert and won the Rebel in his stakes debut. And Pegram savors every opportunity he gets at winning the roses.
"We had Danthebluegrassman who we scratched at the last minute; Silverbulletday, who we sent to the Oaks at the last minute; we had Secret Circle, who we thought would make it but didn't; and Govenor Charlie last year, who we got close with but didn't make it," Pegram said. "It just makes you appreciate it more. We know how hard it is to get here, and it's a hell of a lot harder still to win it."
Pegram gives all credit to Hall of Famer Baffert, with whom he's had an inordinate amount of good fortune over the past 15 years.
"It's Bobby," he said. "Who'd think anybody would take this race by storm like he did, winning it three times and finishing second another three times? He comes here loaded and I just like being on the team."
Pegram has expanded his Thoroughbred operation to include breeding, keeping Silverbulletday for broodmare duty at Hill 'n' Dale Farms near Lexington and also standing Midnight Lute, a son of Real Quiet, at the same operation. Although champion Silverbulletday has not produced any stakes winners to date, it's just been a matter of skipping a generation, as her daughters have produced multiple black-type runners.
Midnight Lute, a 17-hand beauty of a horse, has also surged as a stallion, and is the sire of Midnight Hawk (co-owned by Pegram), who was on the Derby trail this year but will be pointed elsewhere after a nose defeat in the Illinois Derby (gr. III).
"We're more involved in the breeding business than we've been in the past," Pegram noted. "We breed about 10 a year. And I'm not a good seller. I don't sell nothin'. It's duck or no dinner. I've got all the offspring of Silverbulletday, and now I've got granddaughters. One of these days I'm gonna have to break down and sell something, but it ain't gonna happen for awhile.
"We thought ol' Midnight Hawk was gonna get us back here, but we'll just give him some time and let him become a good 4-year-old. It's the best thing for him. He's never run a bad race."
Pegram met Watson and Weitman at a birthday party for Baffert's brother Bill about 15 years ago, and the three have partnered together ever since. Both Watson and Weitman own car dealerships in the Tucson area, where Baffert attended college.
"They're the greatest partners you could ever want," Pegram said. "Top-notch guys, class people, and there's no ego involved. We're here for the horses and to enjoy ourselves. It's all about chemistry. And this here, being at the Derby, is why you're in the horse business. That's why we're here all week. We've had some tough beats, but we've had a lot of good. We really have."
Jockey Mike Smith comments on his Kentucky Derby mount, Hoppertunity: