09/01/2004 11:00PM

Wine country yields vintage class

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The Olympic ideal is admirable. Participation and sportsmanship are the highest forms of expression. First is great, but finish second or third and the accolades still rain down, the flag flies, and you go home with a dandy prize.

Then there is horse racing, a brutal exercise in single elimination, in which winners take all and losers weep, forgotten and buried by time. Disagree? Go visit Cavonnier.

In the 130-year history of the Kentucky Derby, it is quite likely that no horse ever lost by less. Since the photo-finish camera came into play, the only comparable finish occurred in 1959, when Tomy Lee nipped Sword Dancer with nothing to spare.

Deep in the stretch of the 1996 Derby, Cavonnier was on his way to becoming the first gelding to win the race since 1929 and the first California-bred to take the roses since 1962. Then Grindstone appeared on the far outside, as if dropped from a passing plane, and the two hit the line in the same blink of the eye. In the end, the margin was called a nose only because "a hair" was not part of the official vocabulary.

Grindstone, reigning as the Derby winner but never running again, has gone on to a fine career as a stallion. He is easy to find at Overbrook Farm, one of Kentucky's landmark establishments.

In order to visit Cavonnier, however, a little more initiative is required. California State Highway 116 is involved, as is Vine Hill Road, deep in wine country to the west of the town of Sebastopol. For those still at sea, just go north from San Francisco and left at Santa Rosa, then start asking around.

Cavonnier lives in a rolling, 10-acre field on the slopes of Vine Hill Ranch, the horse farm built by Robert and Barbara Walter. Most of their original land is now under grapes, grown and harvested by subsidiaries of Brown Foreman. But the Walter home still commands the crest of the highest hill, and the Walter horses range in adjacent pastures and paddocks.

On a recent summer day, Cavonnier could be found idling in the shade of a large oak near the hay mangers with his companion mare, Allocute. He is 11 now and looks half his age, still sporting his shiny, sealskin coat and his familiar new moon marking between his eyes.

Cavonnier was always a mellow guy. (He was rated an overachiever by his trainer, Bob Baffert, even after a victory in the Santa Anita Derby.) But carrots still get his attention, and a few minutes spent in his company is enough to be reminded of his consummate class.

"Our lives might have been different had he won," said Barbara Walter, who takes treats to Cavonnier late every afternoon. "But he is living the life he would have led no matter what happened. As far as he is concerned, he's still the lord of the manor."

For the past few years, Cavonnier has been celebrated on a special day at the races during the Sonoma County Fair, held in nearby Santa Rosa. Earlier this year, he was the star attraction at a polo tournament held in honor of Robert Walter, the cattleman, land developer, and consummate horseman who died in May of 2003.

Walter's death, at the age of 86, could have spelled the end of the Walter stable. After 29 years of marriage, Barbara Walter has soldiered on, trying to keep their honeybee pattern of black and gold silks on display in the right places while managing her two stallions, her mares, foals, yearlings, and racing stable.

The standards are pretty high, for Cavonnier was not the only homebred to soar. The Walters also bred and raced Batroyale (winner of the Del Mar Debutante), Tout Charmant (winner of the Del Mar Oaks,) and Charmonnier (winner of the Cal Cup Classic).

"Before, there were two of us working on all this," Barbara Walter said this week. "Now there is only one. There are 61 horses, and that's too many for one woman who - well, let's face it, I've never mucked a stable. When I wanted to ride I picked up a phone and a horse was brought to me, and when I was finished I handed the horse to someone.

"I adore the paperwork and the pedigrees," she went on. "I love to see those pedigrees come to life. But the other side of it - the most important side - was taken care of by Robert. At least I'm honest enough with myself to realize my limitations.'"

Still, Walter would love to have one last hurrah from the mares and foals she and her husband put into play together. On Sunday at Del Mar, the 3-year-old Walter filly Fair Millielillie will be running in the $125,000 Solana Beach Handicap for California-breds, while a brace of maidens run this weekend at Bay Meadows.

Walter continues to craft her deeply researched breedings, as well. She has high hopes for the Free House foal being carried by her Robannier mare Royal Alliance. And she is anxious to try again next spring with Cavonnier's little sister, named Watch Out World, who slipped a Cat Thief foal this year in her first mating. Cat Thief stands at Overbrook.

"I plan to send her back," Walter said. "This time, though, I told the farm manager to blindfold her while she's being led past Grindstone. Or, better yet, breed her to him."