Barbara Walter, a feisty San Francisco socialite who honed her horse-breeding skills alongside her late husband, horseman Robert "Bob" Walter, died Sunday at Santa Rosa's Memorial Hospital after a long bout with lung disease. She was 79.
The Walters created a first-class thoroughbred ranch on Vine Hill Road in Sebastopol, where their best-known gelding - 1996 Kentucky Derby Runner-up Cavonnier — was foaled in 1993.
The dark brown gelding went on to win seven of 21 races during his prime, earning more than $1.25 million before retiring to the Vine Hill Ranch where he was born and raised.
"He was the famous horse that lost it by a nose, literally," said her daughter, Cathy Vicini of Santa Rosa. "My mother would go out every day that she could and give a carrot to Cavonnier."
While Bob worked as the hands-on horseman at the ranch, Barbara pored over horse histories, putting together beautifully bred stallions with sturdy mares to create a stable of award-winning thoroughbreds.
"She would spend hours and hours researching which breed went with which breed," Vicini said. "She was a genius when it came to the breeding."
In addition to Cavonnier, the couple bred Del Mar Debutante winner Batroyale, Del Mar Oaks winner Tout Charmant, Santa Margarita Invitational winner Lazy Slusan, San Juan Capistrano winner Ringaskiddy and Charmonnier, who defeated Hall of Famer Best Pal in the 1991 running of the California Cup Classic.
The petite, quick-witted horse breeder was meticulous about everything she did, from horse breeding to housekeeping.
"She had impeccable taste," Vicini said. "She always looked nice, and when she went out, she was dressed to the nines."
Born in the Philippines to a Russian mother and Filipino father, Walter was educated at a Roman Catholic boarding school run by the Ursuline Order in Illinois.
"She was extremely smart and well educated," Vicini said. "You couldn't give her a hard crossword puzzle, ... and God help you if you ever called during &‘Jeopardy.' If you did, you'd better call during the commercial and know the answer to the last question."
Barbara was introduced to horseman and polo player Bob Walter at the Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco in 1974, and they married in 1980.
In 1979, Robert sold his 1,700-acre Fountain Grove Ranch in Santa Rosa, where he had raised cattle.
The couple established Vine Hill Ranch in Sebastopol in 1983, where they built a house, a 2-mile galloping track and a four-horse starting gate.
That's where Cavonnier was fed and trained to be a champion. In 1996, he won the Santa Anita Derby and took fourth place in the Preakness. He also ran the seventh-fastest Kentucky Derby but was edged out in the homestretch by Grindstone.
A supporter of the arts and education, Walter made donations to the Community Foundation Sonoma County, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. She also served on the advisory board of the Green Music Center and was a member of St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Sebastopol.
She was a patron of the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet and the Oakes Children Center in San Francisco.
Last February, she was inducted into the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Hall of Fame.