All Class: Bertram and Diana Firestone


The Firestones' Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk | Getty


Somewhere along the way, the Sport of Kings became the racing industry. That was inevitable because that's the way of the modern world in which most people have to earn a living. However, for many it remains a sport in which the joy comes from taking part, with the wins being the icing on the cake and any financial return a bonus.

Few have played the game with a truer Corinthian spirit or more successfully than Bertram and Diana Firestone, who have graced the upper echelons of the sport which they love for half a century.

Last month, Mr and Mrs Firestone, with a characteristic absence of fanfare, completed the dispersal of their stud as their last broodmare Tap Shoes (Tapit) passed through the ring at the Keeneland January Sale, along with two yearlings and a couple of 2-year-old fillies. They have thus brought the curtain down on one of the most special bloodstock operations of the modern era, one which has been a successful, popular, passionate and dignified player at a high level on both sides of the Atlantic since they enjoyed their first top-level victory in May 1971 when King's Company (Ire) (King's Troop {GB}) landed the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh before taking the Cork And Orrery S. at Royal Ascot the following month.

By this time, Bertram Firestone had built up a successful real estate business in the U.S., primarily in Florida. (He would later merge his real estate and racing involvements when for a time he owned both Gulfstream Park and Calder Racecourse). He and his wife were not, though, coming to ownership as inexperienced enthusiasts but as long-standing, hands-on horse-people. Both were extremely competent show-jumpers and for many years they hunted in Virginia with the Loudoun and Middleburg Hunts. Mr Firestone had spent a summer early in the 1950s as an exercise rider for Charlie Whittingham at Santa Anita. Later in life he would put the skills which he had learned there to good use when he rode in a couple of amateurs' races in Ireland, winning the Madhatters' Private Sweepstakes in 1974, and also training some of their own horses in the U.S. for a period in the early 1980s. Meanwhile Diana Firestone would always be involved in the breaking-in of the horses on their stud.

King's Company's success stemmed from a union of kindred spirits because he was trained by one of the legends of the saddle. The colt had been raced as a 2-year-old by Mrs. R. Vereker when, trained at The Curragh by David Ainsworth, he had won two of Ireland's premier juvenile events, the National S. and the Irish Chorus S. Sent to Tattersalls's 1970 December Sale in Newmarket, he was bought there by Mr Firestone for 35,000gns and sent back to Ireland to join the first-season stable of the great horseman Willie Robinson, who was setting up as a trainer after a stellar race-riding career which had seen him complete the treble of the three greatest jumps races (the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle) and also ride a place-getter in the greatest Flat race, bringing Paddy's Point (GB) (Mieuxce {Fr}) home second in the 1958 Derby.

With one of the best colts in Europe on their hands, the Firestones were in a perfect position to establish their own stud. Consequently, they bought Gilltown Stud and Sallymount Stud in Co. Kildare from the Aga Khan, and King's Company retired to the historic 1,200-acre Gilltown property in 1972. Thereafter the Firestones increasingly became highly successful as breeders as well as owners, to the extent that they were honoured in America with the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Owners in 1980 and the New York Turf Writers Association Award for Outstanding Breeders in 1982.

The Firestones' next top-class horse was, like King's Company, also trained in Ireland. Red Alert (Ire) (Red God {Ire}) won the G3 Jersey S. at Royal Ascot and Stewards' Cup H. at Glorious Goodwood in the summer of 1974, ridden each time by Johnny Roe. As had been the case when they had sent King's Company to Willie Robinson, with Red Alert they again gave a budding trainer a chance. Dermot Weld had taken over his father's stable at The Curragh at the end of the 1972 season and Red Alert proved to be one of the horses who put him on the map. This turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship, with the Firestone/Weld combination becoming as harmonious and long-lasting as it was successful.

Dermot Weld took time to reflect on them as both patrons and friends. He said, “They were wonderful owners to train for. We had a lot of success together: Classic winners, Group 1 winners, many stakes winners. Blue Wind winning the Epsom and Irish Oaks and being the Champion filly of her year was a highlight. She was very, very good, a brilliant filly. Theatrical was a very good horse; second, beaten half a length, in the Irish Derby and then going on to win all those Grade Is in America.”

Weld continued, “They loved Royal Ascot and we had some great days with them there. Nanticious winning the Ribblesdale S. and Day Is Done taking the Norfolk stand out. And going right back we had Red Alert. That was right at the start of my career and it was a great boost to a young trainer to be training for major international owners. They gave me great support throughout.

“On a personal note, they became great friends of our family and I enjoyed many days out hunting with them when they were Joint-Masters of the Kildare Foxhounds. They were much more than just owners: they were and are great friends, wonderful people.”

Having got the ball rolling in Europe, the Firestones soon began having top-class winners back home in the U.S. too. In 1975 they owned the two best 2-year-olds in the land. Mr Firestone raced the Leroy Jolley-trained Honest Pleasure (What A Pleasure) who was awarded the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old colt in 1975 as a result of his victories in the GI Arlington-Washington Futurity, the GI Laurel Futurity and the GI Champagne S. Mrs Firestone raced the Jolley-trained Optimistic Gal (Sir Ivor) who ended the year as the top-weighted filly on the 2-year-old Free Handicap after victories in five graded stakes including the GI Matron S., the GI Selima S. and the GI Frizette S. Both horses excelled again the next year, Honest Pleasure taking the GI Flamingo S., the GI Florida Derby, the GI Blue Grass S. and the GI Travers S. as well as finishing second in the GI Kentucky Derby; and Optimistic Gal winning the GII Kentucky Oaks, the GI Alabama S., GI Delaware H. and GI Spinster S.

The Firestones' next champion was What A Summer (What Luck) who, trained by Jolley, was awarded the Eclipse Award for champion sprinter in 1977 after a campaign which yielded victories in four graded stakes headed by the GI Go For Wand H. The same year they nearly won another Classic in Europe when the aforementioned Weld-trained Nanticious (Nantallah) was beaten in a photo-finish in the G1 Irish Guinness Oaks after winning the G2 Ribblesdale S. at Royal Ascot.

One could say that the Firestones enjoyed their golden racing age through the '70s and '80s. The champions just kept coming. Pole position in their pantheon has to go to the mighty Genuine Risk (Exclusive Native), one of the few fillies to take the Kentucky Derby (in 1980). Leroy Jolley had been understandably cautious about taking on the colts at Churchill Downs but the Firestones (who were always happy to have their fillies or mares take on the males, as Genuine Risk had already done when a strong-finishing third in the GI Wood Memorial S.) decided upon the bold option, with the confidence of jockey Jacinto Vasquez helping to firm up the plan. Happily, fortune favoured the brave, Genuine Risk going one better than both Honest Pleasure and the Firestones' brilliant home-bred General Assembly (Secretariat) had done. The latter was a terrific horse who won the GI Hopeful S. as a 2-year-old in 1978 and then broke Saratoga's 10-furlong record when winning the GI Travers S. at three. He subsequently spent several seasons in the '80s at stud in Ireland at Gilltown alongside their 1980 GI Laurel Futurity winner Cure The Blues (Stop The Music).

Inevitably, 1980 ended with Genuine Risk, who had followed up her Kentucky Derby triumph by taking the GI Ruffian H. back against her own sex, honoured with the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly. The following year further honours flooded in. Blue Wind (Ire) (Lord Gayle), the Oaks winner at both Epsom and The Curragh, was champion 3-year-old filly in both Britain and Ireland, and the Francois Boutin-trained April Run (Ire) (Run The Gantlet) was champion 3-year-old filly in France; while G1 Prix Marcel Boussac winner Play It Safe (Ire) (Red Alert {Ire}) was champion 2-year-old filly in France. Further Royal Ascot glory came that year courtesy of the victory of Day Is Done (Ire) (Artaius), trained by Weld to win the G3 Norfolk S.

April Run had been a wonderful filly as a 3-year-old in 1981 but proved even better in 1982. In addition to a rewarding campaign in France, she landed two championship events in the U.S., the GI Turf Classic (repeating her win in the previous year's renewal) and the GI Washington DC International. She ended the year with the Eclipse Award for champion female turf horse and as champion older mare in France. Her final appearance of the season came in Tokyo when she finished third in the G1 Japan Cup behind another Firestone horse, the Stanley Hough-trained Half Iced (Hatchet Man). There was plenty of jocular family rivalry in the unsaddling enclosure afterwards as Mr Firestone observed, “I am happy that my horse won the race and my wife's horse was third!” (This came about because, while they owned the horses together, they would generally put the fillies in her name and the colts in his)

The two batches of yearlings which the Firestones dispatched to Dermot Weld's Curragh stable in the autumns of 1983 and '84 each yielded a home-bred star. In the early days, Flash Of Steel (Ire) (Kris {GB}) fared better, as he showed by taking the G1 Irish 2000 Guineas in 1986. Even as youngsters, though, Theatrical wasn't far behind; witness his win in the G2 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial and his second place in the G1 Irish Sweeps Derby of 1985. In maturity, however, Theatrical reigned supreme. Transferred to the U.S., he scooped the Eclipse Award for champion male turf horse under Bill Mott's care in 1987, the award being a formality after he had won six Grade I races, culminating in the GI Breeders' Cup Turf, through the season.

Unsurprisingly, the professionals who have enjoyed the Firestones' patronage speak of them with genuine warmth and affection. Bill Mott's respect for them is immense, regarding them as key people in the development of his career.

“I can take you back to when I started training for them,” he said. “I was training in Kentucky on the Kentucky/Chicago/New Orleans/Arkansas Midwest circuit. Their manager called me and asked me to interview for a position in the fall of '86. They flew me up to Catoctin Stud and offered me a job, which would take me from my place in Kentucky, where I was doing well, to New York.

“This was a great opportunity to break into New York, training all their horses there. Initially I didn't know about Theatrical, who was with Bobby Frankel at the time, but after a couple of months Mr Firestone asked me to train him too. He was my first champion, winning six Grade I races in '87 including my first Breeders' Cup race, and being champion turf horse. ”

Mott continued, “They were so generous to me, giving me that great opportunity. Moving from the Midwest to New York, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But training for them was wonderful. They were the most generous and kind people you could possibly have worked for. They had already had great success with horses like Honest Pleasure and Genuine Risk, and it was a great to know them, befriend them, be around them. They were so good to me and my family. Everyone who spent time around them seemed to do well and be better for the experience.

“They are great horse-people. They understand horses, understand racing. They are people who are passionate about the horses themselves, and when people are passionate about the horses as individuals, then it makes it easy for everything to go well.”

The year following Theatrical's tour de force saw Grade I glory for another former Weld inmate, Gaily Gaily (Ire) (Cure The Blues), taking the GI Flower Bowl H. from Mott's barn. She was a terrific mare, landing her first pattern win (in, appropriately, the G3 C. L. Weld Park S. at The Curragh) in 1985 and her final one (in the GIII Modesty H. at Arlington Park) in 1990. In 1988, another Eclipse Award came the Firestones' way when the Jonathan Sheppard-trained Jimmy Lorenzo (GB) (Our Jimmy) collected champion steeplechase horse.

The couple began to scale back their involvement at the end of the 1980s, selling Gilltown and Sallymount back to the Aga Khan in 1989. They also sold Catoctin, their 2,000-acre stud in Virginia, but they did replace it with another magnificent, albeit smaller, property, Newstead. Top-level success started to come less frequently, although their home-bred 1992 GI Hollywood Derby hero Paradise Creek (Irish River {Fr}) won four graded stakes for them before being sold and picking up an Eclipse award in 1994 for his new owner. Other stars whom they bred who ended up winning big races for others included 1981 Washington DC International winner Providential (Ire) (Run The Gantlet), 1993 G1 Melbourne Cup and dual G1 Irish St Leger hero Vintage Crop (GB) (Rousillon) and Steady Flame (GB) (General Assembly), a three-time champion sprinter in Hong Kong (where he raced as Quicken Away). The terrific home-bred Winchester (Theatrical) became their final winner at the top level when carrying their green and white livery to victory in four Grade I races between 2008 and 2011. He was trained by Dermot Weld for the first of those wins (in the 2008 GI Arlington Million) and by Christophe Clement for the subsequent ones.

Clement has been their American trainer in recent years and he leaves one in no doubt how much he has valued his association with the couple, reflecting, “It was an honour when Mr and Mrs Firestone contacted me through Fiona Craig to train for them. Very rarely will one train for people who have been a leading owner and breeder in both the States and Europe. It was also a touch intimidating, as Mr Firestone had a great knowledge of racing through his time as a trainer and in racetrack ownership.”

He added, “Of course, it has also been very rewarding to have stakes horses for them like Winchester, who won multiple Grade Is in New York. Mr and Mrs Firestone are wonderful owners: they are great horse-people and the horses always come first.”

The Firestones loved every aspect of their transcontinental racing enterprise, with horses trained in the U.S., Ireland and France (and occasionally in England). They delighted both in the general sporting involvement and in their success, and would invariably travel to the big races, wherever they were. Of all the destinations, though, Ireland arguably suited them best and they made many friends there. Life in Kildare revolved around horses and horse-people; not just around the racehorses and breeding stock, but also the stable of hunters which they rode with the Kildare Hunt.

Aside from Dermot Weld's jockeys Mick Kinane and Pat Smullen, another horseman who featured in their life in Ireland was the great T. P. Burns, the legend of the saddle who as an apprentice between the wars had ridden gallops alongside Steve Donoghue and who in 1957 had recorded the remarkable double of riding a winner over jumps at the Cheltenham Festival in the spring and a British Classic winner (the Vincent O'Brien-trained Ballymoss (Ire) (Mossborough {GB}) in the St Leger) in the autumn. Burns, long since retired from the saddle, was working as an assistant to Weld when the idea was floated that he might ride in the odd veterans' race. When the 65-year-old finally rode his last winner (at Punchestown in July 1989) it was on board the Firestones' Old Man River (GB) (Artaius).

Pat Smullen, who rode their Irish horses in more recent years, winning big races on the likes of 2002 G3 Ballycorus S. victrix Rum Charger (Ire) (Spectrum {Ire) and her son Winchester as well as 2001 G3 Greenlands S. winner Final Exam (Ire) (College Chapel {GB}), reflects, “For me, personally, first and foremost, they are a lady, Diana, and a gentleman, Bert. That comes before any business associations. It was always a pleasure to ride for them. They have a great knowledge of the game which always shone through, especially when anything went wrong. They could read a race from a jockey's point of view and were so understanding. I have nothing but good memories of great enjoyment with them.”

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