Twenty-two years ago, a chance favor turned a couple on to Thoroughbred racing. Now, Californians Eric “Rick” Waller and his wife, Sharon, own homebred Spectator, who won her first two starts—including the August 5 Sorrento Stakes (G2) at Del Mar—before finishing third in the September 2 Del Mar Debutante (G1).
In 1995, Sharon’s brother, retired jockey Richard Beasley, was suffering from a brain tumor. He asked his sister and her husband to take on his 12-acre property near the Oregon border. The Wallers, who owned a ranch in Southern California, acquired his Thoroughbreds, including the mare Kamikaze Koko. “I just took the mare as a favor and that’s how I got started with the business, because she was in foal to a son of Secretariat by the name of Lucky Sec and had a foal by her side,” Rick recalled.
The Wallers now own six broodmares, five of whom reside at Harris Farms near Coalinga, California, the other in Kentucky. Rick said, “Over a period of time, I decided to raise the level of quality of the horses we were breeding, so I started sending mares to Kentucky and breeding them and bringing them back to California to foal California-breds in order to take advantage of the state-bred program here.”
Rick purchased Spectator’s great-great-granddam, the stakes-placed Mr. Leader mare One Stop, in the late 1990s. He liked her bottom line: Distorted Humor and One Stop share a third dam, the Sailor mare Gay Sonnet. Waller bred One Stop to Swiss Yodeler, producing Swiss Diva in 2004. Rick remembered her as “our first good horse. She won her first three starts and won the  California Breeders’ Champion Stakes at age two by a widening 8 ½ lengths with a 95 Beyer.”
Graded-placed Swiss Diva retired in 2010; Waller sent her to Storm Cat grandson Henny Hughes because he liked the cross of Storm Cat over with that of Swiss Diva’s paternal great-grandsire Damascus. Sadly, Swiss Diva ruptured her cecum while foaling a filly and was euthanized. The resulting foal, named Diva’s Tribute in honor of her dam, broke her hock one week after her birth; after discussing options with Dr. Robert Hunt of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, the Wallers decided the safest course was to let the bone grow until it was whole enough to operate on. Because of her injury, however, Diva’s Tribute remained unraced.
In the meantime, Rick Waller studied Thoroughbred pedigrees, noting, “…I had been studying pedigrees from the point in time that I got into this business, because I knew I didn’t know anything. So I read every book I could get my hands on about pedigrees and breeding and a lot about Federico Tesio.” Waller also engaged pedigree consultant Anne Peters, who recommended stallions Into Mischief and Jimmy Creed . Breeding to the last-named horse, son of Distorted Humor, created linebreeding to the aforementioned Gay Sonnet. Diva’s Tribute savaged her 2013 Into Mischief filly, who never raced due to resulting injuries. Named Tenacious Heart for her courageous attitude, that mare is now in foal to Spectator’s sire Jimmy Creed.
The Wallers sold Diva’s Tribute, in foal to Strong Mandate , for $4,700 at the 2015 Keeneland November sale. Six weeks after Spectator’s birth, the Wallers saw her in Lexington for the first time. “She was a very fine-looking filly, just a nice foal, built very well, and I noticed that all four of her hooves had white tips on them…I don't recall ever seeing any like that,” said Rick. “So, it kind of reminded me of spectator shoes, the way her hooves are.” Although those white tips grew out, Spectator still boasts noticeable white patches on her chest and neck. Her owner-breeders adore their even-tempered filly, as Sharon said enthusiastically: “She’s real sweet. The horse loves to be petted and she never pins her ears back and tries to bite.”
Though the Wallers have tasted success before, Spectator is on another plane. “Her second dam, Swiss Diva, is reminiscent of what’s going on now, but Swiss Diva was a Cal-bred and she won her races in Cal-bred companies—nothing like open company and graded stakes, like Spectator,” mused Rick, adding, “The attention and recognition that you get is very rewarding. It’s a bit overwhelming.”
The Wallers reside in Rancho Santa Fe, California, near Del Mar. To win a race there is rewarding, but, according to Rick, “to win a stakes race, a graded stakes race, is beyond imagination as to how satisfying that is, because you know that other trainers have brought their best horse into town to run here. So, when you defeat horses that cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, that have broken their maidens by large distances, I think you can put two and two together and say to yourself, ‘I have something special here.’”