California breeder Walter J. Thomson, whose involvement with Thoroughbred racing in the state began in the 1940s, died Feb. 1 at the age of 98.
Owner of a successful import/export business, Thomson was an early member of of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and served as its president and as a board member for 10 years. He began breeding horses in 1942 and established 320-acre Rancho Felicia in the Santa Ynez Valley four years later after his operation at his estate next to Santa Anita Park grew too large.
Rancho Felicia remained the oldest operating Thoroughbred breeding farm in the central California coastal area until Thomson sold it three years ago, according to his lifelong friend and fellow breeder Bill Nichols.
Thomson never realized his dream of turning Rancho Felicia into a state-of-the-art rescue and retirement home for Thoroughbreds, Nichols said, because he could not find anyone willing to take the ranch for that purpose.
Nichols and Thomson bred Sea Orbit, the most successful descendant of grandsire Seabiscuit. Sea Orbit, who was out of Thomson's mare Sea Flora, won 22 of 67 races, including 12 stakes, and earned $291,275 from 1959-63 for owner Willis Merrill.
Among the major stallions to stand at Rancho Felicia over a 50-year period were Preakness Stakes winners Dauber and Head Play, Hollywood Gold Cup winner Big Pebble, Belmont Futurity winner Chance Sun, and the top imported sires Orbit II, Polkemmet,and Ahdeek.
In addition to his contributions to the CTBA, Thomson was the Western United States representative of the International Racing and Breeding Association with headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil.
Also known for his philanthropy, Thomson was a major supporter of the Humane Society in both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.
He is survived by his second wife, Mary Jean of Montecito, Calif., and a son, Victor, of Montana. A gathering to celebrate his life is planned although the date has not been set.