Liam Collins pays tribute to the oldest billionaire who had a passion for horses and his Irish stud farm
The Moyglare Stud dinner in Dublin, presided over by the elderly billionaire Walter Haefner and his beautiful fourth wife, France, was for many years the highlight of the Irish horse-racing social calendar.
Haefner, who died at his home in Switzerland at the age of 101 on June 19, is believed to have bought the prestigious 440-acre Moyglare Stud near Maynooth, Co Kildare, after a chance meeting with the previous owner in a Dublin hotel.
Just late last month the BBC's Claire Balding and Willie Carson wished him well before his Dermot Weld-trained Princess Highway set off in the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot, which the horse won in style.
Born in Zurich on September 13, 1910, he was described last week as "a gifted businessman and visionary philanthropist" with a deep and abiding love for the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses and the techniques and science of racing.
Haefner, who married four times, had two children, Eva Maria, who inherited his passion for racing and Moyglare, and a son, Martin Walter, who succeeded him as chairman of the family business, which included the Amag car dealership in Switzerland.
Haefner had homes in Switzerland, Russia and Ireland and was a well-known art collector and philanthropist, setting up the Walter Haefner Foundation in Switzerland.
He once told Forbes magazine: "I am a simple man, with simple pleasures." Nevertheless. when he died he was the world's oldest living billionaire.
Moyglare Stud, in a statement issued on behalf of the Haefner family, said: "Advised by his doctor at a relatively late age to take up riding, Haefner chose amateur flat racing and pursued this with typically energetic dedication. Horses were his escape and a corner of Ireland became his enduring passion. A great fan of Irish sport horses, Haefner first came to Ireland to buy a show-jumper. A delayed flight, a chance meeting in a Dublin hotel, a few Irish whiskies and Haefner went home with an Irish stud farm. That was 1962, and Moyglare Stud was born."
He was one of six children of a middle-class Swiss family. After attending the University of Lyons in France and the University of Zurich, to which he went on scholarship and took a degree in business administration, Haefner worked in the automobile industry, initially as an employee of the Swiss division of General Motors before opening what was to become the biggest Volkswagen dealership in Switzerland.
But he made his fortune when, in 1957, he recognised the role computers would play in the future of the motor industry. He imported IBM systems initially before creating Automatic Centre AG in Zurich, expanding into the US in 1976 and merging with Computer Associates, of which he was the largest shareholder with 21 per cent. According to Forbes magazine, he was worth €4.3bn.
Haefner was also the biggest importer of Volkswagen, Seat, Audi and Porsche cars into Switzerland.
Haefner employed Stan Cosgrove as stud manager at Moyglare and over the last 50 years built one of the world's best racing operations. With Dermot Weld as its principal trainer for almost 40 years, Moyglare has enjoyed considerable worldwide success on the racetrack. Haefner won the Belmont Stakes in the US with Go And Go in 1990, the Irish 2000 Guineas in 2003 with Refuse To Bend, the Tattersalls Gold Cup with Casual Conquest in 2008 and the Melbourne Cup in 2002 with Media Puzzle.
He was also a part-owner of the famous American Triple Crown winner and sire, Secretariat, and he told the horse's biographer that he became involved in racing because "I loved the sensation of speed on a horse".
The Irish Derby was always one of his racing goals -- however his horse, Speaking of Which, was withdrawn from last night's Curragh classic.
In recent years Haefner took great pleasure that his daughter Eva-Maria shared his passion for racing, and Moyglare Stud in particular. She is now his successor at the Kildare stud and her children Chiara and Mischa are enthusiastic supporters of Irish racing.
A memorial service for Walter Haefner will be held in Ireland at a later date.