California Breeder Hopes To Create Model Retirement Farm

On a small scale, Walter Thomson has been breeding Thoroughbreds for 60 years. Now, he says it's time to do something big for the animals that have given him so much enjoyment.

Thomson, a retired businessman who will be 92 in April, wants to donate his 200-acre Santa Ynez, Calif., farm -- Rancho Felicia -- to the animal science program of nearby California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo for a Thoroughbred retirement home with room for 200 horses that will also serve as learning facilities for students. The ranch has an estimated value of $6 million to $7 million.

Mindful of how most horse retirement farms face a constant shortage of funding, he's also willing to establish a trust fund with $5 million -- but only if the university can raise $10 million more.

"There's three or four others (retirement farms) in the state, all of which are operating on a hand-to-mouth basis," Thomson said. "I want the income to be there so I don't have to worry about the horses being taken care of."

He figures that the interest on a $15 million endowment will provide enough to cover yearly operating expenses "in a highly professional, dignified manner and become a showplace of its kind."

Thomson and Dr. Andrew Thulin, head of the animal science program at Cal Poly SLO, have been negotiating the deal for several months. Thulin says he is excited by the potential, but admits that raising $10 million at a time when his program is being cut back in other areas due to the state's budget shortfall is an issue.

"In the next two to three weeks, I need to get together with our advancement (fundraising) team and see where they are," Thulin said.

Without a positive response from the university's contacts within the racing and breeding industry, he said, "I can't get it by my president."

Thulin has inspected the ranch, located about 75 miles south of the campus, which is on the central California coast north of Santa Barbara. With some needed additions to the farm's infrastructure, he feels Rancho Felicia would be ideal for his program's "holistic attitude" toward study of the Thoroughbred life cycle -- from birth and raising to racing and/or breeding, and to the twilight years.

His undergraduate program of 600 mostly pre-veterinarian students is involved in many aspects of breeding and animal care. More than half is primarily interested in horses, Thulin explained. The program annually breeds 10 mares for the yearling sale at Barretts each October and a number of Cal Poly SLO students and graduates work in the racing industry. The program does research on infertility, embryo transfer and nutrition and its effect on soundness, among other aspects of animal science.

"(Thomson's) got a passion for this and so do we," he said.

Thomson made his fortune in agriculture, borax mining and the Thomson Trading Co. import and export business. He started breeding and occasionally racing horses as a sidelight in 1942. He and partner Bill Nichols bred and raced Seabiscuit's most illustrious offspring: a grandson named Sea Orbit, who won $291,000 in the 1960s.

Thomson is part-owner in current California stallions Flying Victor and Holding Court, who stand elsewhere. The only stallion now at Rancho Felicia is Saintry, along with a reduced herd of seven broodmares.

An early member of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and a director on its board for 10 years, Thomson says he was inspired to donate his ranch by a series of editorials he read a year ago. He initially approached the CTBA as the logical recipient of his donation, he said, "but found almost no interest."

Another contact put him in touch with the university. Several meetings at the ranch with Thulin and other department representatives followed.

He said he wants to reserve space at the ranch for only Thoroughbreds who have been retired from racing and/or breeding.

"The idea goes back many years when my now deceased wife, Holly Felicia, suggested it," he said. "But it took Don Engel's (three-part) 'Shame!' articles in his monthly Thoroughbred Information (Agency) newsletter to spur me to take action."

Engel was pleasantly surprised by Thomson's planned gift. "Walter is a very gentle, kind man," said Engel, a longtime breeder and bloodstock agent. "This is a wonderful idea. The challenge will be raising the money."