His friend Pegram stood in the background, a grin plastered across his face.
Yesterday, Pegram leaped from the shadows into the wondrous glow of the winner's circle when his horse Real Quiet, nicknamed "The Fish," won the 124th Kentucky Derby on a picture-perfect spring day here at Churchill Downs.
The festive crowd of 143,215, many sipping mint juleps, was the third largest in Derby history.
After Real Quiet outran Indian Charlie and held off Victory Gallop down Churchill Downs' long, demanding stretch, the good friends, normally a couple of wise-cracking goof-offs, turned serious.
"I almost started crying when Real Quiet hit the wire," Baffert said. "It's an emotional thing for me with Mike Pegram. We're so close. To him, this is his day. This is the greatest day of his life."
Real Quiet's victory brought Baffert's and Pegram's friendship full circle. They met a decade ago when Baffert trained quarter horses in Arizona. Pegram, a fun-loving, beer-drinking guy from southern Indiana, encouraged Baffert to make the switch to thoroughbreds.
Pegram watched the race on TV with the horse's groom on the ground floor of the racetrack. He ignored his seat with the millionaires on the third floor. Although wealthy now from owning 21 McDonald's franchises in Washington state, Pegram said: "I think it's very appropriate that I watched the race where I started. I started going to the races down on the rail."
What Pegram saw was a flawless performance by horse and former Maryland jockey Kent Desormeaux -- skimming the rail around the first turn, moving off the fence into the clear down the backstretch, working through horses entering the far turn and then blowing by the early leaders and surging into the clear for the final quarter-mile sprint to the wire.
Sent off at 8-1 odds, Real Quiet withstood a late charge by 14-1 Victory Gallop, who had rallied from last place but fell a half-length short. The previously unbeaten Indian Charlie settled for third, becoming the 19th straight favorite to lose the Kentucky Derby.
Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year who entered the race with nine victories in 10 races, finished eighth after tiring badly down the stretch.
Real Quiet paid $18.80 to win and headed a $291.80 exacta, $1,221 trifecta and $3,007.40 superfecta. Halory Hunter, rolling like a freight train, claimed fourth. The winner's time was 2 minutes, 2 1/5 seconds.
For the silver-haired Baffert, the victory was his second straight in the Kentucky Derby.
He became the sixth trainer in Derby history to win back-to-back Derbies. He is a couple of inches short of being the only trainer to win three in a row. In 1996, his Cavonnier lost by a nose to Grindstone.
"I never thought, after winning with Silver Charm, I'd feel that inner emotion again," Baffert said. "But it gets better every time you win it. This race is unbelievable. There's no race like it in the world."
Baffert bought Real Quiet for Pegram at the 1996 Keeneland yearling sale. Baffert paid the bargain-basement price of $17,000. When Pegram later saw the breeding -- by Quiet American out of Really Blue -- he quizzed Baffert about the price.
"What's he got, cancer?" Pegram asked.
Baffert explained that the horse from the side looked marvelous. But from the front he looked as thin as a tropical fish. From then on, Real Quiet became known around the barn as "The Fish."
He was slow to develop, winning only two of his 12 starts. And his dosage index -- a means of measuring stamina -- was supposedly too high for a Kentucky Derby winner.
But in the days leading to the Derby, training here on Churchill Downs' sometimes quirky track, Real Quiet thrived and turned aggressive. Baffert began calling him "The Shark."
Before the race, Baffert said he told Desormeaux: "This race is won and lost on the first turn. I want you on the rail going into the first turn, and then get behind a fast horse. When you get him on backside, you ride it the way you want."
Desormeaux complied. Real Quiet was sixth into the first turn and all the way into the second.
"And then the posse came," Desormeaux said. "I slid him to the outside of Indian Charlie. And all by himself, he just started moving forward and moving forward.
"He just took me, he back-seated me. And I was like, 'Oh baby!' When we turned for home, I was like, 'Yes, maybe.' And then at the eighth pole, or maybe 80 yards out, it was like, 'Oh ----!' Here they come.
"I switched [my whip] to the right hand, and The Fish switched to his right lead and gave me four more jumps of strain, and then he toughed it out to the wire. I asked him for his life, and he gave it to me."
Pegram could hardly speak after his bargain horse earned $738,000 of the Derby's $1,380,000 purse.
"I grew up in southern Indiana, went to Ellis Park, skipped school and came to Churchill," he said. "If this ain't a movie "
Of his relationship with Baffert, he said, working up a smile and acknowledging Baffert's wife, Sherry: "It wasn't romantic, thank God. But you know when you've got chemistry with someone. We had instant chemistry. We had a lot of fun together.
"I didn't know anything about a good horse trainer when I met xTC him. But I knew good people. And you stay around good people, good things are going to happen to you."
Pegram apologized to Churchill Downs officials for holding up the photographs in the winner's circle.
"But I wasn't going to take that picture until my friends got there," he said. "That's what horse racing's about. When you got the fastest horse, and you got your friends with you, you're on top of the world.
"And I'm on top of the world. We got a lot of beer to drink tonight."
How the horse favored in the wagering has fared in the Kentucky Derby since 1979, the last time a favorite (Spectacular Bid) won the race:
Year, Horse, Odds, Fin.
1980, Rockhill Native, 2.10-1, 5th
1981, Proud Appeal-x, 2.30-1, 18th
1982, Air Forbes Won, 2.70-1, 7th
1983, Marfa-x, 2.40-1, 5th
1984, Life's Magic-x, 2.80-1, 8th
1985, Chief's Crown, 1.20-1, 3rd
1986, Snow Chief, 2.10-1, 11th
1987, Demons Begone, 2.20-1, DNF
1988, Private Terms, 3.40-1, 9th
1989, Easy Goer-x, .80-1, 2nd
1990, Mister Frisky, 1.90-1, 8th
1991, Hansel, 2.50-1, 10th
1992, Arazi, .90-1, 8th
1993, Prairie Bayou, 4.40-1, 2nd
1994, Holy Bull, 2.20-1, 12th
1995, Serena's Song-x, 3.40-1, 16th
1996, Unbridled's Song, 3.50-1, 5th
1997, Captain Bodgit, 3.10-1, 2nd
1998, Indian Charlie, 2.70-1, 3rd
Overall: 1st place--47 times. 2nd place--28 times. 3rd place--11 times. Out of money--40 times. (Totals include finishes of co-favorites in 1923 and 1928)
x-part of an entry
Two in a row
Trainer ................ Winners
Dick Thompson (4) ...... 1932 Burgoo King
........................ 1933 Brokers Tip
Ben Jones (6) .......... 1948 Citation
........................ 1949 Ponder
Jimmy Jones (2) ........ 1957 Iron Liege
........................ 1958 Tim Tam
Lucien Laurin (2) ...... 1972 Riva Ridge
........................ 1973 Secretariat
D. Wayne Lukas (3) ..... 1995 Thunder Gulch
........................ 1996 Grindstone
Bob Baffert (2) ........ 1997 Silver Charm
1998 ................... Real Quiet
Top 3 finishers:
1. Real Quiet $18.80 8.80 5.60
2. Victory Gallop 13.00 7.60
3. Indian Charlie 4.20
Time: 2: 02 1/5 over 1 1/4 miles
$2 Exacta: $291.80
$2 Trifecta: $1,221.00
$1 Superfecta: $3,007.40
Rest of field: Halory Hunter, Cape Town, Parade Ground, Hanuman Highway, Favorite Trick, Nationalore, Old Trieste, Chilito, Robinwould, Artax, Rock and Roll, Basic Trainee.
Triple Crown schedule
Preakness: May 16, Pimlico Race Course, 1 3/16 miles
Belmont Stakes: June 6, Belmont Park, 1 1/2 miles
Pub Date: 5/03/98