12/24/2002 1:00AM

Virginia McKnight Binger dies

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Virginia McKnight Binger, the breeder of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and the daughter of William L. McKnight, the founder of the legendary Tartan Farms, died on Sunday at her home in Wayzata, Minn., according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She was 86.

Binger and her husband, James H. Binger, the former chairman of Honeywell Inc., became the owners of the Florida-based Tartan Farms in 1974, four years before the death of McKnight. McKnight, who for 37 years was the president and chairman of the 3M Co. in Maplewood, Minn., started Tartan Farms, named for the trademark design of Scotch tape, in the 1950's.

Among the stakes winners bred by Binger after her father's death were 1980 Preakness winner Codex, who was owned by Tartan, and Unbridled, who was voted champion 3-year-old male in 1990 after winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic for owner Frances Genter.

In 1990, Tartan homebreds led North America in earnings with $6.9 million. Three years earlier, the Bingers had dispersed the majority of their racing and breeding stock at Fasig-Tipton's November sale in Kentucky.

Champions bred and raced by Binger's father include 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager and Dr. Patches. Calder annually runs a race named in McKnight's honor. This year's running is on Saturday.

Binger ran one of the country's biggest charitable foundations, the McKnight Foundation, which was launched in 1953 by her father. During her 14-year tenure as the president, which ended in 1987, the foundation donated $235 million to a multitude of causes, including scientific research and the arts. Today, the McKnight Foundation ranks as the 24th largest charitable foundation in the United States.

Binger and her husband owned several Broadway theaters in New York City, including one named after Binger, the Virginia Theater on W. 52nd St.

Binger's personal wealth was recently estimated at $770 million by Forbes Magazine,

She is survived by her husband; a son, James M. Binger; a daughter, Cynthia Binger Boynton; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The funeral is scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Martin's by the Lake Episcopal Church in Minnetonka Beach, Minn.