10/26/2006 12:00AM

California breeding's bedrock

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is dangerous to think of anything as a slam dunk, whether the prediction is regarding weather, war, or the relatively harmless matter of a horse race.

Still, it was nearly impossible to see beyond Best Pal in the first running of the California Cup Classic, contested at Santa Anita on the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1991. He came into the race ranked among the top 3-year-olds in the land. He had defeated such formidable elders as Twilight Ridge and Unbridled in the Pacific Classic. He was 2-5 in the betting, and from some angles that even looked generous.

"The name of Best Pal was sacrosanct," recalled Barbara Walter, who had Charmonnier in that first Cal Cup Classic with her husband, Robert. "Everyone who went in that race thought they were running for second or third."

As it turned out, the Walters had to settle for first prize instead. Charmonnier staged one of California's most stunning upsets that day, getting 12 pounds from Best Pal in the handicap and outdueling the slam dunk favorite to win by a head.

"We were absolutely numb," Walter recalled.

There will not be the same shock waves generated on Saturday if Walter wins the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic for a second time with 4-year-old Robador, who is trained by Eoin Harty. Based on two Del Mar wins and a sharp third in a local prep, Robador will be among the favorites to win a wide-open nine-furlong Classic, which headlines an 11-race California Cup program.

Robador was a work in progress through the early months of 2005 when he was content to finish second or third under a variety of circumstances. Obviously a showoff, he won for the first time with a rousing stretch run to take the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park. At 23-1, Robador didn't quite match Charmonnie's payoff at 28-1 in the Classic. But no one complained.

Walter's only regret was that Robert Walter wasn't there to savor the day. Her husband of 29 years died in May 2003, at age 86, leaving behind an incomparable legacy of ranching and community development, especially in the wine country town of Santa Rosa, just down the road from the Walters' Vine Hill Ranch. Any questions about his impact on the California breeding business can be answered by noting the name attached to the California Cup event for 2-year-old fillies - the Robert H. Walter.

Eoin Harty, who trains horses for Sheikh Mohammed, has been thick in the Walter mix, having been Bob Baffert's assistant trainer in the days when Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier and the sprint stakes winner Argonnier headed their homebred string of runners.

Cavonnier took the Walters to the top of the sport by coming within a short nose of winning the 1996 Kentucky Derby. Charmonnier, besides taking the Cal Cup Classic, came within two lengths of winning the 1993 Hong Kong International when third in an all-star field.

"You can tell a Walter horse," Harty said. "They really stamp them - big, strong and sturdy. They all have substance to them. Robador's very much in that vein. Very genuine, with a good mind, and a pleasure to have around."

There have been many other good ones to come off the testing slopes of Vine Hill Ranch, including Del Mar Debutante winner Batroyale, Del Mar Oaks winner Tout Charmant, and San Juan Capistrano winner Ringaskiddy. Without exception, their parentage was diligently researched and analyzed by Barbara Walter, who knows her Thoroughbred families as well as her own.

Robador's back story is typically Walteresque. Each purchase is an adventure, always searching for nuggets of quality in distant branches of the bloodlines, just waiting to be nursed back into present-day vitality.

Perusing the 1990 Keeneland mixed catalog, Barbara was stopped cold by a mare named Home From the Fair, a daughter of Northern Dancer out of full sister to Arts and Letters. As a broodmare, she had been barren twice and slipped once, but of her three foals to race one was a stakes winner and another was a young 2-year-old of promise. Barbara's power point pitch to Robert was concise.

"There are only three Northern Dancer mares in the whole catalog," she said.

"But it looks like she's awful hard to get in foal," Robert countered.

"What do you want? Quality or quantity?" Barbara said. "Besides, she's way at the back of the catalog. Everyone will have gone home or spent all their money. I think you can steal her."

They did, for $60,000. When word got back to them from their agent that Home From the Fair was safely theirs and on the way to Vine Hill, Robert felt a gesture was in order.

"Okay, you found her and you fought for her," he said as they reviewed the sale. "Since I haven't bought your birthday present yet, I'll give you Home From the Fair. Just one thing, though. Will you sell me her first colt?"

Barbara recoiled at the idea.

"I will not," she replied. "But I will give him to you."

The colt, by the Walters' taproot stallion Batonnier, turned out to be Robannier, the sire of Robador.

"And don't forget," Barbara reminded as Robador's Cal Cup drew near. "The 'Ro' in Robannier and Robador is for Robert."