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Robert Walter, 86; Northern California Owner and Breeder of Racehorses

May 11, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Robert H. Walter, whose racehorse Cavonnier came within inches of accomplishing in 1996 what this year's Kentucky Derby winner achieved, died Wednesday at his home in Sebastopol, Calif. He was 86.

Walter and his wife, Barbara, ran a successful breeding operation at Vine Hill Ranch in Sonoma County. Seven years ago, they came within a nose of winning the Derby when Cavonnier was edged out at the wire by Grindstone. Cavonnier, beaten in the closest Derby in 39 years, would have been the first gelding to win the race since 1929. Instead, that distinction went this month to Funny Cide.

Bob Walter, as he was known in racing circles, had been suffering from acute leukemia. In 1996, a month before the Kentucky Derby, he traveled to Los Angeles, despite having undergone recent major stomach surgery, and saw Cavonnier win the Santa Anita Derby. Cavonnier was only the fourth gelding to win the Santa Anita race.

With Grindstone forced into early retirement because of injury, Cavonnier went off as the favorite in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the final legs of the Triple Crown series. He finished fourth in the Preakness and failed to finish in the Belmont, suffering a tendon injury. Two years later, Cavonnier returned to the track and won the Ack Ack Stakes at Santa Anita. Voted horse of the year among California-breds in 1996, Cavonnier finished with $1.2 million in purses.

Cavonnier was a son of Battonier, a stakes-winning stallion that Walter had bought for $60,000 in 1986, three years after the purchase of Vine Hill Ranch. Other offspring of Battonier raced by the Walters included Charmonnier, who upset heavily favored Best Pal in the California Cup Classic at Santa Anita in 1991; and Batroyale, winner of the Del Mar Debutante in 1995. Another top horse campaigned by the Walters was Tout Charmant, winner of the Del Mar Oaks in 1999. They later sold the filly for more than $1 million.

With little success, Walter had invested in breeding shares to expensive stallions before he bought Battonier. "With Battonier, we had more control," he once said. "We could pick out the mares, the ones we thought would match up with the stallion."

Walter, who was born in Lannon, Wis., prospered in real estate and as a cattle broker. He was a top polo player, still playing competitively after he turned 60. He and his wife ran a hands-on breeding and racing operation, with Barbara planning the matings.

Walter, whose wife of 32 years, Mary Ellen, had died, married Barbara after a chance meeting at a political fund-raiser at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "Mr. W.," Barbara Walter called her husband of 29 years. They played dominoes during the many trips with their horses.

A funeral Mass is slated for 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Sebastian Church in Sebastopol.

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