Barbara Walter entered the Pearly Gates last Sunday and in front of her were Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi — all the big hitters were there.
Barbara did the respectful nod, maybe even a slight curtsy, to the iconic assemblage and then said, without pause, "Barbara Walter. Coming through."
That's the Barbara Walter I knew. Barbara passed away last Sunday at 79 and, even though she was maybe 5-foot-2, and maybe 100 pounds, she would fill up a room just by walking into it. I first met her and her husband, Bob, 14 years ago to do a column on their dark bay gelding, Cavonnier. Cavonnier would win the Santa Anita Derby that year, finish second by a whisker in the Kentucky Derby, fourth at the Preakness and then scare the beeswax out of everyone by pulling up lame while going down the home stretch at the Belmont.
It wasn't long into that first interview in 1996 that this image occurred to me: Bob was a summer breeze and Barbara was a tornado. Talk about opposites attracting each other. Barbara was the exclamation point to Bob's sentences. Barbara provided the definitive and descriptive extension of any point Bob was making. Two voices, quite disparate apart from each other, interacting without a skip. I thought they would have made a great psychology doctoral thesis.
"Barbara was quite determined to break that Kentucky glass ceiling," said her daughter, Cathy Vicini.
The "Kentucky glass ceiling" was the Kentucky thoroughbred industry. Kentucky horses were the prized horses. Kentucky owners set the bar, and everyone else limboed under it. Pure bloods owned the pure bloods, with the accompanying nose in the air to match, especially when they learned Cavonnier was a gelding, not even good enough to breed. Oh, how that motivated Barbara. Here were the Walters from some hamlet called Sebastopol in Northern California. Don't they grow dope there, the bluebloods snickered, not horses?
Sure, the Walters had a stable. They had their own training track, too. But, compared to Kentucky, they were bit players. A mom-and-pop outfit all the way.
Except for this one thing. Pop was the horse whisperer. Bob knew the animal, loved the animal. He had a way about him, you know, and with people, too.
Mom was the sponge that absorbed. She poured over The Racing Forum, breeding charts, books, tablets, essays. Bill Gates didn't look at his first computer program with any less fervor that Barbara over horse stuff. The sponge never was soaked too much. Barbara never thought she learned it all. Even after Cavonnier became the toast of California that year, when The Cavonnier Stakes began in his honor at the Sonoma County Fair, when visitors would ask permission to see him at Vine Hill Ranch, Barbara never stopped pushing.
"The most important thing for Barbara was to be successful," Vicini said.
Whether it was always looking impeccably dressed, using the language correctly, demanding respect even in casual conversation or breeding a horse capable of winning a Triple Crown race, Barbara gave off an unmistakable air — I am the finished product, I am capable, I am ready for anything.
"Intelligent people don't see life as a struggle," Vicini said. "Intelligent people see life as a challenge. And Barbara was highly intelligent."
So when the shooting star by the name of Cavonnier came into her and her husband's life, Barbara responded the same way Cavonnier did when the gates opened to start a race.
"Cavonnier was aggressive, assertive, wanted to be noticed, had to be seen," Vicini said. "He was a thoroughbred all the way."
Cathy, sounds like you just described Barbara as well.
"Yes," Vicini said. "Barbara was a thoroughbred, too."
It was the perfect marriage of horse and owners. Bob supplied the horse sense. Barbara supplied the data, the details, the structure. Cavonnier took it from there.
When Bob died in 2003 at the age of 86, Cavonnier was still there to remind Barbara when all three of them were at their best, running hard, running free on the national stage, taking that sledgehammer to that Kentucky glass ceiling. In looking at Cavonnier after Bob passed, Barbara was seeing Bob, as well.
"And she was seeing herself," said Vicini.
A thoroughbred looking at a thoroughbred. One knew instinctively about the other. One is still left to remind us. For how long? Who can tell?
"Cavonnier is healthy as a horse," Vicini said without cracking a smile.
Cavonnier, now 17, most likely will be moved to an equine retirement farm in Glen Ellen, to spend the rest of his days as he has spent the last 10 years, the alpha horse recognized by all others in his pasture.
One day Cavonnier will enter the Pearly Gates, and Bob and Barbara Walter will be waiting there for him, with Barbara issuing the appropriate greeting to all those watching.
"Cavonnier. Coming through."
For more North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@press