by Joey Crandall, firstname.lastname@example.org · 7 min read
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in September of 2016.
MINDEN, Nev. — “Without community, you don’t have anything.”
Mike Pegram let the statement sink in over the crowd assembled for the annual Critical Issues Conference, presented by the Business Council of Douglas County, at the Carson Valley Inn Thursday morning.
“…And we have the greatest community in the world. The pride, the way the people take care of each other.”
The question had been simple enough — what he would say to the business owners in the community as a matter of encouragement moving forward — but in three simple sentences, the owner of the Carson Valley Inn and Sharkey’s Casino managed to summarize everything he’d been getting at for the better part of an hour as he participated in a rolling question-and-answer period (intimate if not for the hundreds in attendance) with conference master of ceremonies Sam Shad.
“Put your money where you live,” he said. “Follow your dreams and follow your passions.”
Pegram’s journey has covered much of the country in different aspects, from humble small-town beginnings, to the pinnacle of the horse racing world and, within the past decade or so, Carson Valley gaming mogul.
He was straight-forward with the crowd on Thursday, unafraid to reveal his thoughts, his approach to business and some of his more humbling moments – continuously linking it all back to his roots.
Take, for example, when he received the large solid gold owner’s trophy for Real Quiet’s 1998 Kentucky Derby victory.
Sitting in a parking lot of the Elks Lodge in Pegram’s hometown of Princeton, Indiana (population 8,175) — long after everything had closed down for the evening — a discussion arose as to how many beers might be able to fit within the giant cup.
The answer, much to the chagrin of the Blue Blood horse racing community, was exactly one six-pack.
“The beer was so cold, I started seeing the gold frost over a bit and worried that I might have ruined the trophy,” Pegram said with a chuckle. “When word got around about that, the Blue Bloods out there didn’t like it. That was quite a night, just being with some of my high school buddies and celebrating.”
That place in time, that parking lot, that town, the idea of that community is something he returns to often.
“I was lucky enough to grow up in a poor area,” Pegram said. “And I was never afraid to go back to it, that I might end up back there. I saw people live good lives without a whole lot.
“That’s not to say you don’t try to stay smart about things, but I knew where I came from, and I knew it wasn’t that bad. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.”
He shrugged it off, as he seems to do with most things, reminding the crowd that he’s been referred to in newspapers as “the hillbilly who shows up to a symphony carrying a banjo.”
“There was one sportswriter who wrote, ‘The thing about Pegram is that the racing world doesn’t like him because he earned his money a different way than hearing the reading of a will,'” Pegram said with a laugh.
Indeed, Pegram wears his workman’s beginnings as a badge of pride – enthusiastically searching out avenues to give credit to others for his various successes and repeatedly returning to the refrain of “community.”
“I always loved this area,” Pegram said. “I’m a small-town guy. I grew up in Southern Indiana and then spent some time in Sacramento when it was still a relatively small place.”
From there he moved up to the Pacific Northwest (“It bore so many similarities to Carson Valley, especially in the people,” he said), where he opened a series of McDonald’s franchises and later moved his base of operations to Phoenix.
“The thing about Phoenix now is there is no sense of community,” he said. “It boomed down there, and went from neighborhoods to a huge city. I wanted no part of it.”
That helped pave his route to Northern Nevada, where he rebuilt Bodine’s restaurant in Carson City into a 12,000 square foot casino.
Shortly thereafter he bought the Carson Valley Inn and helped guide it through the recession. In late 2014, he bought the shuttered Sharkey’s Casino at auction and remodeled and reopened it within the span of seven months.
Each case represented substantial investments, both in the infrastructure and in the people involved, he said.
“I’m never going to buy an asset and sit on it,” he said. “I’ve never been a safe guy. It’s how you assess the risks vs. the rewards. With the economic downturn in 2001, and again in 2007, people were getting back more to their rural roots.”
Pegram also noted what he saw as an absolutely critical role for the entrepreneur to get down on the ground while developing a local gaming property.
“Bill Harrah, Harvey Gross, John Ascuaga — those guys had their hands on their properties,” Pegram said. “There was pride and love there. People knew them and valued what they had brought to their places. That’s how you keep that family touch. You can’t excel without it.”
It was reminiscent of Ray Kroc, who’d taken McDonald’s nationwide and built it into the world’s largest fast food chain, and whom Pegram had worked with in developing his McDonald’s franchises.
“There are so many lessons I took from Ray Kroc — ‘If you clean something that is still clean, it can’t get dirty’ — things like that,” Pegram said. “You’re going to laugh, but there are a lot of similarities between fast food and gaming. Both are things you don’t need to survive, so it comes down to the service experience.
“It boils down to customer satisfaction every day. You do everything you can to make every customer happy.”
“The thing about Ray, he was always reaching for more. He was never satisfied. You always have to be growing. When you’re green, you’re growing, when you’re ripe, you’re not.”
When the prospect of purchasing the Carson Valley Inn first came onto the table, Pegram said he took a look at popular destination spots such as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I just kept thinking what do they have that Carson Valley doesn’t?” he said. “And they ain’t got Lake Tahoe.”
Pegram talked about his lifelong love affair with horse racing, how he’d go 15 miles across the Ohio River to watch races at Ellis Park.
“I can never remember not going to the race track,” Pegram said. “My dad loved betting on the race horses.”
Pegram opened his first McDonald’s in 1975 and bought his first horse in 1977.
“My financial situation changed in the early 80s,” he said. “Which is another way of saying, I got a divorce.
“So I lost the horse to settle a divorce.”
Through a brief foray into quarterhorses, Pegram was introduced to a young trainer named Bob Baffert. The two formed a friendship bonding over briefly getting stranded in El Paso before taking an unplanned flight to Las Vegas.
“In 1987 my father died and suddenly I found myself with 27 thoroughbreds to disperse,” Pegram said.
Another friend in the racing world suggested they bring Baffert into training thoroughbreds.
“He has won four Kentucky Derbies since,” Pegram said. “It’s been a joy going from Ellis Park to where he is now. My success is because I hooked my wagon to the right star. He has taken me on an incredible ride.”
Pegram said Carson Valley’s future will be largely affected by how well the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe is able to establish itself.
“The greatest thing that can happen to Carson Valley is to have a strong base on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe,” Pegram said.
For now, though, he is relishing in helping to build what to him represents a mirror of his own roots.
“This is my home,” he said. “This is where I want to be and where I want to spend as much time as possible.”