In business or on horses, he lived to compete

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

Robert Peterson tried to run his life as efficiently as the machinery he designed. Passionate and competitive, he founded six companies and raced thoroughbreds by sleeping just four hours a night, his family said.

A Detroit native, Mr. Peterson spent his adult life commuting between Florida and Michigan. In 1998, he moved for good to his 5-acre ranch in Odessa.

"He could look in a horse's eyes and tell if they were happy or sad, or if they needed special attention," said Rick Slomkowski, Mr. Peterson's trainer for 30 years.

Mr. Peterson died on Friday after undergoing hernia surgery. He was 89.

A fourth-generation tool-and-die maker, Mr. Peterson worked for Ford Motor Co., cutting and grinding the machine parts that make cars.

He started his own business in the 1940s, then created other companies. He named Major Gauge and Tools, his most successful company, after a rescued Great Dane, a one-master dog that some people found frightening.

In the 1950s, Mr. Peterson played polo for the Ivory Rangers, one of many teams in the Detroit area. Later, Mr. Peterson had a falling out with its founder, moving magnate John Ivory, and formed a team of his own.

In business, Mr. Peterson was a hard-liner who would rather disband a company than work with unions. He was more generous in his personal life, once rescuing a cash-strapped Detroit church from insolvency.

As his fortune grew, Mr. Peterson began buying and training racehorses. He did most of his racing in retirement, running more than 100 thoroughbreds at Tampa Bay Downs, as well as race tracks in Alabama, Delaware and Michigan.

His reputation was strong at Tampa Bay Downs, where his horses won about 25 percent of their races, though less frequently in recent years, according to Slomkowski.

Mr. Peterson lavished attention on his dogs, a black Labrador named Scooter and a Weimaraner named Bear.

He liked Honey Nut Cheerios, pork chops from Longhorn Steak House and a daily glass of merlot, said Stacey Peterson, 36, who cared for her father.

"He could be tough to live with," she said. "The more he loved you, the harder he was on you as far as telling you where you were going wrong, or what you needed to do differently."

Mr. Peterson drove the speed limit or faster, even when he had to use his hands to lift his legs into the car. His combined physical ailments - the result of polo injuries, arthritis, two hip replacements and a crushed leg after a horse fell on him in 1997 - made standing difficult.

"He would say, 'No, no, no, I've got it, just give me a minute,'" his daughter said.

In Odessa, he rose each morning at 7 a.m. and watched his trainer work with his horses.

He continued those routines until his body gave out.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 813 61-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.


Robert R. Peterson

Born: May 20, 1918.

Died: Nov. 9, 2007.

Survivors:wife, Terry Lynn Peterson; children Thomas Peterson, Jerry Peterson, Robert Peterson Jr., Vicki Peterson, Lisa Peterson and Stacey Peterson; and three grandchildren.