Refined Rich : Life of Ranch Heiress: Horses, Opera, Theater, Responsibility--and Privacy

Times Staff Writer

Cynthia Wood spent much of her childhood cleaning the manure out of horse stalls on her family's dusty Simi Valley cattle ranch.

"It was a constant, repetitious effort to keep the place looking nice," she once told a reporter. "I almost always imagined something grander."

Grand the Santa Barbara heiress got. During her debutante years, she waltzed off to Italy, where she made the rounds of lavish receptions, studied opera and worked backstage at Milan's famed La Scala.

Later, she came home to build a palatial stable in Montecito, where her champion show horses gave her one of the most renowned barns in the history of American Saddlebred Horse Assn. competition.

Today, the 51-year-old Wood and her mother, Ailene B. Claeyssens, are the owners of Taylor Ranch, the 30,000-acre expanse west of Ventura that California State University has targeted as the site for a new college campus.

Quiet, Disciplined

Their sudden withdrawal of the ranch from consideration this month not only jolted college and local officials, but also left more than a few wondering about the prominent yet reclusive family whose caprices could dash so many hopes.

Although Wood declined several requests for an interview, those who know her paint a picture of a quiet, disciplined woman whose wealth and intelligence have afforded her a rare command of events.

"She always reminded me of Jackie Onassis--her speaking and her shyness," said Judy Pearce, a former equestrian columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. "She's not the splashy rich with lots of big gaudy-looking things. She's always been more delicate, reserved and refined."

Wood entered the world of the upper classes as a child when her mother married cattleman and philanthropist Adrian G. (Buddy) Wood, whose previous wife, Emma, was the third generation of her family to own Taylor Ranch.

When Adrian Wood died at 89 in 1971, he left his stepdaughter and her mother millions of dollars in stocks, as well as the keys to the coveted ranch, which borders the Pacific Ocean for more than 6 miles.

$200 Million in Minerals

The land itself is appraised at just under $1 million, although that sum only measures its worth for agricultural uses, according to officials in the Ventura County assessor's office.

A separate county assessment of nearly $200 million was made last year on the ranch's mineral deposits, 7,500 acres of which are leased to the Shell and Conoco oil companies.

Royalties from those leases--Shell's has been in place since 1911--have provided Cynthia Wood with a life of privilege. But, as longtime acquaintances like to point out, Wood has looked on her wealth as a tool, not an end in itself.

"It's not a case of some airhead on Cloud 9 with all this money that doesn't know where to go or what to do," said Gene O'Hagen, a Santa Barbara real estate broker and Wood's first riding instructor. "If a bomb went off and we were all just out there on our own, she would survive very well."

When she was 21, she was elected captain of a horse team competing in Italy's Palio, the famous and frenzied race that has been run around Siena's main square twice a year since the 15th Century.

The horse she trained, Beatrice, was rated as one of the favorites, and its third-place showing caused the young Wood to burst into tears. "Next time we shall win," she declared.

That promise came true for Wood when she returned to Santa Barbara in 1965 and laid out the plans for Stalloreggi, an immaculate 25-acre stable named for the street she lived on in Siena, where apartments had been built over horse stables since medieval times.

The centerpiece of the stable was a 350-foot-long barn of sparkling white brick designed to house 50 horses, many of which earned her fame at the annual Santa Barbara National Horse Show.

The grace and control exhibited by her American Saddlebreds, a breed developed in the early 19th Century, won her blue ribbons yearly for nearly two decades at the event, said Harriet Landrum, the horse show's secretary.

"She was probably the most famous exhibitor we ever had," Landrum said. "She was a very classy, gracious lady."

Wood, who trained many of the horses and rode them too, later took her champions east to the Kentucky shows, where a bronze statue of her famous juvenile horse, James L., is on permanent display at the American Saddlebred Horse Assn.'s museum in Lexington.

"She had an incredible ability to interact with the animals," said Patricia Nichols, executive director of the association. "It's not something that's learned. It's an empathy. You either have it or you don't."

However, in 1983, apparently feeling that she had exhausted the challenges of Saddlebred competition, Wood sold her stables and began spending more time in the world of New York opera and theater, friends said.

When in Santa Barbara, she stays at the family's spectacular Mediterranean-style estate, christened Andorra after the mountainous and secluded republic nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.

But the curious are kept at a distance by signs along the long private driveway warning uninvited visitors that they will be prosecuted. All phone calls are fielded by her attorney or her personal secretary.

"There's an enormous responsibility that comes with her kind of wealth," a former neighbor said. "She bears it nicely. The privacy is just a result of wanting to get away from the slings and arrows that come when people know you're that well off."

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