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Barbara Walter was among unsung heroes of California breeders
Breeders’ Cup week should be all smiles and giggles, sunshine and flowers, and glasses way past half full. The best the game has to offer in an event designed to please, the Cup usually delivers on its promise, leaving behind a feel-good vibe that lingers well into winter.
As such, the atmosphere during Breeders’ Cup week is the hardly conducive to a eulogy. Barbara Walter wouldn’t stand for it anyway. Propriety being her hallmark – she once turned down a relatively indecent proposal from the young Marlon Brando – the last thing she would want to do is rain on anyone’s parade.
But Barbara Walter died last weekend at the age of 79, which leaves it to those of us lucky enough to have been counted among her friends to make sure that her legacy is acknowledged promptly and remembered with respect for at least as long as Thoroughbreds are bred and raised to be raced.
If nothing else, a tribute to the life and Thoroughbred interests of Barbara Walter provides an opportunity to put a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the Breeders’ Cup celebration. They are, without a doubt, the breeders themselves, who for most of the event’s 26-year history have footed the bills to fund the races that make the series unique.
One would think, by virtue of the name, that the Breeders’ Cup would feature wall-to-wall acknowledgement of the men and women who buy and breed the bloodstock, match the sires and dams, and usher the leggy little devils into this world. Look around the many hours of ESPN coverage this week, however, and I will bet any nods toward breeders are few and far between, token if at all, and thinly connected to the heartbeat of the proceedings. It’s horses and jockeys, owners and trainers, who occupy prime time.
This is not to suggest that John Gaines misrepresented the concept when the Breeders’ Cup was first presented. Perhaps he truly believed that the breeders would play not only a significant role in the funding of the program, but also receive their due when the TV cameras rolled.
But that did not really happen, and so, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, calling the event the Breeders’ Cup without paying decent homage to breeders is like calling an ox a bull: They are grateful for the honor, but they would rather have restored what was rightfully theirs in the first place.
Barbara Walter was the golden child of an upper crust Manila family who attended a private Catholic girls school in America and met all the right people. Upon settling in San Francisco, she moved in the kind of circles that led her to the Soviet Union on a good will mission at the height of the Cold War, and to the Cow Palace for the national rodeo finals on the night that mutual friends knew the widowed Bob Walter, a Santa Rosa rancher and real estate developer, would be in attendance. Sparks eventually flew.
Once they were a team, the Walters worked hand in glove. He was the hands-on horseman, while she was the cupid who dug through the generations to find just the right mix to match their reasonably-priced, beautifully bred stallions Batonnier (by His Majesty) and Slewvescent (by Seattle Slew) with mares who were hardly the belles of the ball.
They were, however, inbred and intertwined with families to die for, rife with the latent influences of Paul Mellon, the Phipps family, Nicholas Brady, and Claiborne Farm. Barbara Walter did the math, figuring the nicks, and parsing precisely how many generations could be relied upon to effectively carry superior genetic information.
“I love to see those pedigrees come to life,” Walter would say.
The results were remarkable. Breeding and raising their horses on the slopes and oak-clustered fields of their Vine Hill Ranch, near the hippie-rich Northern California town of Sebastopol, the Walters brought forth Del Mar Debutante winner Batroyale, Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier, Del Mar Oaks winner Tout Charmant, Santa Margarita Invitational winner Lazy Slusan, San Juan Capistrano winner Ringaskiddy, and Charmonnier, who defeated Hall of Famer Best Pal in the 1991 running of the California Cup Classic.
It would not have taken much for the Walters to have gone from being big fish in the West Coast pond to being heralded as national household names. Cavonnier, their pride and joy, missed winning the 1996 Kentucky Derby by a margin that is considered the narrowest in the history of the race. Then in 2000, it was Tout Charmant, racing by then for Bob McNair, who fell just three-quarters of a length short of winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs.
In the California Cup run again last Saturday, at Hollywood Park, the Robert H. Walter Juvenile Fillies was, as usual, part of the program. Since Robert’s death in May 2003, Barbara Walter never missed the trip south to crown the winner of the race named in honor of her husband, and a chance to celebrate the memory of their 29 years together. This time, however, Bob’s race was run without her. Barbara was hospitalized last week, weakened by lung disease, and finally succumbed to pneumonia early Sunday morning.
Before she was hospitalized, Barbara managed to call this fortunate reporter, mostly to ask about the family, to talk about her horses, to offer an update on the 17-year-old Cavonnier, lording over the barren mares in his generous pasture, just below the Walters’ hilltop home. She had tried hard in the seven years since her husband’s death to squeeze one last good horse out of the scaled-back Vine Hill operation, but it was not meant to be.
For many of her friends and fellow Thoroughbred connoisseurs, the everlasting memory of Barbara Walter was provided last February at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, when she stood before an appreciative audience to accept induction into the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Hall of Fame. Barbara protested that it was her husband who truly belonged, and that she was just along for the ride. The standing ovation said otherwise.