Pegram makes Derby run in name of Captain Steve

May 03, 2000|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When you ask for the story behind a Kentucky Derby horse's name, you never know what you might hear. Owners name their horses after children, movies, sires and dams -- almost anything, really.

In the case of Captain Steve, a colt trained by Bob Baffert and entered in Saturday's Derby at Churchill Downs, the name traces to a story about a gun, a cop, a couple of hours in jail and a lot of beer.

It's not exactly a remake of "Black Beauty," but given Baffert's Derby record, which includes a second and two firsts since 1996, it could become the next piece of racing lore.

"The whole thing is unbelievable enough already," said Steve Thompson, the Louisville police captain for whom the colt is named. "If we end up winning the Derby on top of it all, I'll barely believe it myself."

Thompson spoke outside Baffert's barn yesterday morning after Captain Steve's final pre-Derby workout, which finalized the colt's place as a 15-1 shot.

"The horse looks good, but we're going to need a lot of luck," Baffert said. "We can't afford any mistakes."

Funny he should put it that way. A mistake by the colt's owner, Mike Pegram, started the whole saga three years ago.

A year before he and Baffert won the 1998 Derby with Real Quiet, Pegram was in Louisville for the race and won a huge bet on the winner, Silver Charm, also trained by Baffert, his close friend. There was a lot of partying and gift-giving, and Pegram stumbled to the airport the next morning to catch a plane back to Washington state, where he owns 16 McDonald's franchises.

"I was late for the flight and really hurrying to the gate," Pegram said yesterday, "and I put my bag through the X-ray [machine at the security checkpoint]. I knew right away there was a problem. There was a long wait, and one of them asked, `Whose bag is this?' Like a fool, I raised my hand."

It turned out one of the gifts he'd received over the weekend was a gun, a chrome .357-caliber Magnum.

"A girlfriend gave it to me," Pegram said. "She's an ex-girlfriend now."

Pegram isn't even interested in guns, but he had one -- without a license -- along with a ton of cash from the winning bet.

"It didn't look good," he said, "even though the gun had never been taken out of the box."

Airport security put him in handcuffs and turned him over to the Louisville police. Hello, Jefferson County Jail.

"They put me in a holding tank, but they didn't take away my cell phone," Pegram said. "I called Bob [Baffert]. He thought I was kidding."

When Baffert finally realized his friend was in jail, he contacted a Churchill Downs official, who called the governor of Kentucky. The governor's office said to call back later. The Churchill official then called Thompson, a familiar figure at the track.

"I've worked the police detail at the track and the Derby for many years," Thompson said. "I know the races. When I got the call, I knew who Mike Pegram was and that there was some sort of mistake."

Thompson took the call in church on a cell phone, contacted a judge, arranged for Pegram to be released, drove to the jail, picked Pegram up and drove him back to Baffert's barn.

"They told me I'd have to wait four or five hours at least, and then, suddenly, here was a guy going, `Come with me,'" Pegram said. "Then he drives me back to the track. You want to talk about someone being grateful, it was me."

Thompson and Pegram talked about racing as they drove.

"I bet you win the Derby someday," Thompson said.

"I hope you're right," Pegram said.

Incredibly, after Real Quiet's win a year later, the first person Pegram saw was Thompson, who was working security at the winner's circle.

"You're coming with me," Pegram shouted, swooping the captain into the victory party. "I remembered what he'd done for me and what he'd said about me winning the Derby. There was something higher going on there."

A gun-possession charge against Pegram ultimately was dropped, and the owner and police captain have since become such good friends that Pegram named one of his 1998 yearling purchases after Thompson.

"We have a good time together," said Pegram, a renowned life-of-the-party guy.

"A fantastic friendship has formed," Thompson said. "Mike Pegram has flown my wife and myself all over the country to watch the races and just be with him and have fun. And now this: a horse in the Derby named after me."

A Louisville native, father of six and career policeman, Thompson was almost overcome with emotion as he spoke.

"I've been to 29 Derbies, and like a lot of people from Louisville, I hold the event in high regard," he said. "To be on this side [of the event] is amazing.

"In my job as the [police] commander of criminal investigation, I spend most of my time dealing with the worst society has to offer. I've seen more awful things than I ever want to remember. I guess this is the payback. Win or lose Saturday, this has been something beautiful."

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