Thursday, May 04, 2000

This police horse runs for roses

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — Captain Steve is the horse of a different collar. His name derives from a concealed weapon, an airport arrest, a frantic series of phone calls and the officer who sprung Mike Pegram from the Jefferson County Jail.

        Figuratively, at least, Captain Steve is the first police horse ever entered in the Kentucky Derby. The literal truth is stranger still.

        Captain Steve Thompson, commander of Louisville's criminal investigation section, was attending Sunday mass on the morning of May 4, 1997 when his cell phone rang in St. Martha's Church.

        Normally, Thompson would have shut off his phone for a religious service, but this time he forgot. He recalls vividly the look of disapproval on the face of the priest as he fielded the call. He has told the story so many times that the details have become indelible.

        Thompson had spent the previous day supervising the security detail for the 123rd Derby, and now someone was on the phone from Churchill Downs in need of his intervention. Pegram, a high-rolling horseman who owns 16 Seattle- area McDonald's, had been handcuffed at the airport and sent to jail after a .357 magnum pistol was discovered in his luggage.

        Pegram says the gun was a gift from a girlfriend, a gift still unopened as he prepared to leave Louisville. Because he was also carrying a pile of cash, Pegram was one passenger bound to arouse suspicion at an airport checkpoint.

        Pegram's first call was to trainer Bob Baffert, a friend who had won the Derby the day before with Silver Charm. At first, Baffert assumed Pegram was joking, but he soon saw the need to seek help. When a call to the governor's office produced no immediate progress, desperation dialed Captain Steve.

        “I've worked the police detail at the track 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 called a judge to authorize Pegram's release. Then, mass over, he drove to the jail, picked up Pegram and delivered him to Baffert's barn.

        “Next time I see you,” Thompson told Pegram in parting, “you'll win the Derby with your own horse.”

        The moral of our story: Never argue with a police officer.

        When Pegram returned to the Derby the following year, he was armed only with Real Quiet, which was plenty. When he made his way to the Winner's Circle that Saturday, he encountered the cop who had vouched for him.

        “He (Thompson) was the first person I ran into other than family after Real Quiet went across the finish line,” Pegram said. “I don't know if I believe in omens, but it wasn't something I wanted to risk.”

        Pegram dragged Thompson to the trophy presentation that day, and the police captain quickly became part of the owner's entourage. Two months after Real Quiet's Derby win, Pegram spent $70,000 for a yearling. Captain Steve later learned he had a four-legged namesake.

        “I'm 6-5,” Thompson said. “That day I was 9-5.”

        When Steve Thompson was first assigned to the Derby detail, his assignment was to guard the garland of roses awarded the winner. After 29 years on the force, Captain Steve has graduated to Millionaire's Row. He is taking the week off to attend to the chestnut colt in Barn 33, an 8-1 shot in the morning line.

        “If we win, we're going to dedicate this race to the 1,000 or so police officers who don't get this day off,” Thompson said. “And then we're going bonkers.”

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at