Sixteen years ago this month, Mike Pegram walked on the moon.
Not literally, but close enough.
Pegram, who lives part-time in Northern Nevada and owns two area casinos, had his own miracle horse in 1998, a discarded chestnut colt with a narrow frame and crooked knees.
But for a five-week period, that horse, Real Quiet, grabbed the nation's attention. Real Quiet came within 4 inches of winning the Triple Crown, falling a nose short of taking the Belmont Stakes and breaking the seemingly everlasting drought since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978.
California Chrome, the so-called "America's horse" co-owned by Steve and Carolyn Coburn, is the latest to attempt the feat.
Having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Chrome will run in Saturday's Belmont looking to end the 36-year Triple Crown curse. Pegram walked in the shoes currently worn by the Coburns.
"People asked me, 'What would it mean to win the Triple Crown?'" Pegram said. "One day I got wise with a reporter and said, 'This is my moon walk. There's been more people who have walked on the moon than won the Triple Crown.' The next day, another reported called and said, 'How'd you know that?' I said, 'I didn't. It sounded good.' As it turned out, there were 12 people who walked on the moon and 11 who won the Triple Crown. That puts it in perspective. It shows how rare of air you're breathing."
California Chrome and Real Quiet have similar stories. Both were overlooked, California Chrome the foal of two underachieving horses that nobody wanted, and Real Quiet purchased for a paltry $17,000 as a yearling because of his crooked knees and skinny physique, which led to the nickname "Fish."
Both horses prepped for the Triple Crown in California rather than Kentucky and both came from non-traditional owners who broke the mold.
The Coburns are working-class folks, and Pegram was a fan who got into horse racing, a guy who proudly clung to the label of a "Hee Haw" boy and once described his native Princeton, Ind., as being "about eight beers" from Churchill Downs.
But, as California Chrome burst onto the scene early in his 3-year-old season, Real Quiet didn't explode until right before the Triple Crown races. He lost his first six events, won only two of his first 12 races and didn't even win as a 3-year-old until the Kentucky Derby. But when he bloomed, it was beautiful.
As Pegram puts it, "the ugly duckling grew into a beautiful swan," and gave Pegram his moon walk.
"I had so much fun those five weeks," Pegram said. "You meet new friends, you reconnect with old friends. I guarantee you Steve has gotten calls from people that he's forgotten about that he knew and he liked. But you drift off in life. When people see you, they reach out, and it's a very heartwarming experience."
Going off as the fifth favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Real Quiet took the lead on the final turn and held off a charge from his soon-to-be rival Victory Gallop to win the Run for the Roses. Two weeks later, Real Quiet again bested second-place Victory Gallop, this time winning by more than two lengths.
With each race won, Real Quiet's confidence grew. Pegram was convinced he had a Triple Crown winner, much like Coburn believes the same about California Chrome. Pegram could see Real Quiet's disposition change. The horse was no longer the ugly duckling nobody wanted.
"After he won the Derby and the Preakness and came back for the Triple Crown, when I would go into the barn and give someone else a carrot before him, he'd start squealing, kicking, bucking," Pegram said. "He knew he was the man. To see his personality change as he got good was absolutely unbelievable."
At the Belmont, Real Quiet made a powerful run to the lead halfway through the race. He took a commanding margin at the top of the stretch, lengthening his lead to five lengths in the final furlong.
Pegram thought it was over. He thought his horse was going to "put on another Secretariat show."
But then Real Quiet got complacent. In charged Victory Gallop. And as they crossed the finish line neck-and-neck, legendary broadcaster Tom Durkin yelled, "It's too close to call! Was it Real Quiet? Or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words! This photo is worth $5 million," a reference to a $5 million bonus from Visa to any horse who won the Triple Crown that year, which added extra spice.
Then came a 3-5 minute wait for the photo finish, which "seemed like 3-5 days," Pegram said.
"At that point in time, watching it with the naked eye, I thought I'd gotten beat," Pegram said. "But I had two people who had seen a lot of races, one of them (Hall of Fame trainer) D. Wayne Lukas, who told me, 'Mike, you won it! You won it!' I saw the enthusiasm in his eyes. He was hoping we'd have a Triple Crown winner. That's what people don't get. Everybody in the sport wants to see another Triple Crown."
But that Triple Crown winner wouldn't be Real Quiet. The photo finish showed Victory Gallop by a nose, just 4 inches ahead of Real Quiet at the wire. It's the smallest margin of victory in the Belmont Stakes' 146-year history and the closest a horse has gotten to winning the Triple Crown without doing so.
While the narrative after the race was that Real Quiet got tired, Pegram refutes the idea. Real Quiet lost focus, he believes. The jockey, Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, lost focus. When Victory Gallop made his charge, Real Quiet re-engaged and never let his rival get by, losing simply on the bob of a nose.
Pegram didn't watch a replay of that Belmont for three years. When he thinks about his horse's run for the Triple Crown, he doesn't dwell on the final loss. He thinks about the old friends he got reacquainted with, the new friends he met and the horse that became a champion.
Back then, Pegram figured he'd have another shot at a Triple Crown. He's still waiting.
"As I get older, I realize that was my one moon walk," said Pegram, now 62, who has remained one of the world's elite horse race owners, although he hasn't had a horse push for a Triple Crown since Real Quiet.
Nearly two decades later, Pegram's friends, the Coburns, whom he met when they frequented his casino, the Carson Valley Inn, are nearing the end of their moon walk.
Will California Chrome break the drought? Or will he experience the Belmont Blues like so many before?
A few months after Real Quiet lost the Belmont, Pegram went to Churchill Downs and walked in the Kentucky Derby Museum. He looked at the banners hanging from the ceiling.
"They have the colors of the 11 Triple Crown winners hanging from the ceiling," said Pegram, who will attend Saturday's Belmont to support the Coburns and hopefully witness history. "I looked up there at the ceiling and said, 'Gosh, we were so close. So close.' The only thing I hope now is when we go back there next year, there will be the 12th one up there and I can look up and say, 'I know those people.'"