By Bill Finley
Diana Firestone, who, along with her husband Bert campaigned a number of champion horses, including 1980 GI Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk, passed away peacefully at her home in Florida on Feb. 12. She was 91.
In 1980, the Firestones won an Eclipse Award as the nation's top owners. Bert Firestone passed away in 2021.
“I can't say enough good things about her and Bert and the opportunity they gave me when I shifted from the Midwest to New York,” said Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who was hired by the Firestones to be their private trainer in 1986. “They gave me the opportunity to break into New York and they treated me like family. She was a wonderful person and a very good horse person herself. She was very knowledgeable about racing and breeding. She always conducted herself so well and was a very kind person.”
Firestone was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1932 and was the granddaughter of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of the health products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. She was the daughter of John Seward Johnson, an executive with Johnson & Johnson, and Ruth Dill Johnson, a native of Bermuda.
A lifelong equestrienne, Firestone learned to ride in England with her siblings. While in prep school in Washington, D.C., she rode hunters and jumpers and fox hunted across Virginia's northern landscape. After graduating from Bennett Junior College, Firestone had a renowned equestrian career, representing the United States in horse shows worldwide.
“Horses, with the single exception of my family, have been the most important thing in my life,” Firestone once said.
“She was an amazing mother and an amazing horse woman,” said Firestone's daughter Alison Robitaille. “Pretty much every animal loved her. Whether it was dogs, horses, whatever, when it came to animals she was like a magnet. She gave to me my love of horses and introduced me to them at an early age, which I am very grateful for.”
In recognition of Firestone's commitment to equestrian sports, the American Horse Shows Association awarded her the Walter B. Devereux Trophy for having exemplified the ideal of good sportsmanship through commitment, dedication and service.
The Firestones were perennially among the top owners in the sport in the 70s and 80s and horses running under their familiar green and white silks accounted for 51 graded or group stakes wins.
Teaming up with trainer Leroy Jolley, they landed their first Eclipse Award with Honest Pleasure, the champion 2-year-old of 1971. He was followed by 1977 champion sprinter What a Summer.
But the Firestones will always be best remembered for winning the Derby with Genuine Risk, who, at the time, became only the second filly to win the sport's most prestigious race. She finished second in a controversial running of the GI Preakness S. and was then second in the GI Belmont S. She is the only filly to win or place in all three Triple Crown races. In 1986, Genuine Risk was enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame.
Two years after Genuine Risk, the Firestones had another Eclipse Award winner. Already a champion in France, April Run (Ire) won an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding turf mare in 1982. In 1987, the Firestone's Theatrical (Ire) won six Grade I races, including the GI Breeders' Cup Turf, and was named champion turf male. He was the first Breeders' Cup winner and Eclipse champion for Mott.
The Firestones were also active in Europe. In 1981, their Blue Wind (Ire) was named champion 3-year-old filly in both England and Ireland and April Run was named champion 3-year-old filly in France. That same year, Play it Safe (Ire) was named champion 2-year-old filly in France.
The Firestone homebred Winchester became the couple's final top-level victor with four Grade I wins from 2008 to 2011, and they completed the dispersal of their bloodstock in January 2020. The Firestones, who owned both Gulfstream Park and Calder Racecourse from 1989 to 1991, began scaling back their racing ventures in the late 1980s.
Firestone is survived by four children, Robitaille, Lorna Stokes, Christopher Stokes, Cricket MacDonald and three stepsons, Matthew Firestone, Ted Firestone and Greg Firestone. She is also survived by 16 grandchildren.
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