05/13/2003 11:00PM

Walter team gave us quite a ride


SANTA ROSA, Calif. - It is May of 1996, Preakness week, and suddenly Bob and Barbara Walter are the toast of the Triple Crown scene as the owners and breeders of Cavonnier, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby.

Not an ordinary runner-up, either. Although such things are not etched into the records, it is likely that no horse every lost the Kentucky Derby by less. The naked eye was a useless tool in separating Cavonnier, running just off the rail, from Grindstone, who finished down the center of the track. The official margin was a nose, but just try breathing through a nose that small.

Grindstone's broken knee ended his career before the roses had even begun to wilt, leaving Cavonnier - a gelding born and raised in the wine country north of San Francisco - as the leader of the 3-year-old division.

As a result, Cavonnier was duly favored in the Preakness, at 17-10. His owners were featured on the ABC telecast of the race, patiently explaining how it was possible to raise world-class Thoroughbreds in terrain more famous for redwoods and vineyards. And their trainer, a fellow named Baffert, was proving to be a natural entertainer.

Unfortunately, Cavonnier did not like the deep ground at Pimlico, a far cry from the harrowed highway at Churchill Downs. Nor did he benefit from the raucous Pimlico infield crowd, which let loose an object at the field as it passed on the final turn.

"A [bleeping] football!" screamed Chris McCarron, Cavonnier's combination rider and wide receiver, who was audible via an ABC directional mic. They finished fourth to Louis Quatorze.

The adventure ended on a sour note three weeks later in New York, where Cavonnier, favored once again, bowed a tendon trying to win the Belmont Stakes. The Walters brought their baby back home to recover at their Vine Hill Ranch, near the town of Sebastopol, and promptly commissioned a painting of the Derby finish, which was hung proudly over the mantel in the great room of their hilltop home.

So much for the agony of defeat.

The life of Robert Henry Walter, who died on May 7, was celebrated this week by friends and family converging on Sebastopol and neighboring Santa Rosa, the wine country town that Walter helped put on the map. Rancher, land developer, and all-around dreamer, Walter crammed a world of accomplishment into his 86 years, earning the right to be called, in the words of his old pal Bill McNeany, "A man for all seasons."

He was also a man of sardonic frontier wit and bedrock common sense, who somewhere along the way learned how to make a mean mint julep.

"Bob would start the process long before the Derby party," said Barbara Walter, Bob's second wife and soulmate for the last 29 years. "The mint, the rock sugar, mashed into that sludge, and then the bourbon - glug, glug, glug. After that, he'd put it on the roof, turning it every so often as it baked in the Sonoma Valley sun. Bob always said it was strong enough to make a man love his mother-in-law."

The fact that Bob and Barbara Walter also bred a horse who was good enough nearly to win the Kentucky Derby should come as no surprise. They worked as a team, with Bob supplying a lifetime of horsemanship and Barbara a devoted student of pedigree. They raised their horses on 550 acres of prime land at Vine Hill Ranch and gave them their early lessons over hilly gallops designed along the lines of Ireland's Ballydoyle.

The Walters bred and raised three millionaires: Cavonnier, Tout Charmant, and Lazy Slusan. They bred and raised Charmonnier, who upset Best Pal in the 1991 California Cup Classic. They bred and raised Batroyale, winner of the 1995 Del Mar Debutante, and Charm a Gendarme, winner of the 1992 Senorita Stakes, whose 2000 colt by Saint Ballado sold for $4 million at auction.

Last Tuesday afternoon, while the 10-year-old Cavonnier basked in his sunny paddock at Vine Hill Ranch, Bob Walter was buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Santa Rosa. He was attired in a tan three-piece suit and the tie he wore through Cavonnier's Triple Crown races, along with the jewel-encrusted medal that confirmed Walter's knighthood in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an honor conferred by the Pope.

Inside his coat was tucked a simple paper badge, punched out from a greeting card given to the Walters by their grandson, David Vicini. The card depicted a loving elderly couple who had been together so long they needed ID tags to tell them apart. One badge, carried proudly by Barbara, read, "I'm the adorable wife." The other - "I'm the wonderful husband" - was nestled now and forever next to Bob's still heart.

"Last week, when they brought him home from the hospital, two nurses were helping him into his bed," said Barbara. "There he stood in his hospital gown, backside exposed, and what does he say as he gets off the gurney? 'Check for small change.' They didn't know whether to laugh, or take a look."

The man will be missed.