Accomplished Horsewoman Firestone dies at 91

Diana Firestone was a lifelong equestrienne and award-winning owner/breeder.

Originally published on on 2/14/2023, written by Eric Mitchell

Lifelong equestrienne and accomplished owner/breeder Diana Melville Johnson Firestone died Feb. 12 at her home in West Palm Beach, Fla., her family confirmed Feb. 14. She was 91.

The tremendous loss to the Thoroughbred racing community, first reported by Thoroughbred Daily News, comes a year and half after the loss of her husband, Bertram Robert Firestone, in July 2021.

Diana and Bert Firestone in 2020 with Genuine Risk’s Kentucky Derby trophy Courtesy Bert and Diana Firestone

Born in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1932, Firestone was the daughter of John Seward Johnson, an executive and director of Johnson & Johnson, and Ruth Dill Johnson, a native of Bermuda. She was the granddaughter of Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson.

Firestone learned to ride in England with her siblings Mary Lea, Elaine, and Seward Jr., and riding quickly became her first love. In her school days at The Madeira School, 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 races and shows worldwide.

She was first married to Richard G. Stokes and then to Bert Firestone in 1973. Together, Bert and Diana bought a 1,400-acre farm in Virginia they named Catoctin after a creek running through the property. They also would later own Big Sink Farm near Lexington.

Not content with just riding, she was instrumental in the creation of a highly successful Thoroughbred breeding operation, breeding and racing seven Eclipse Award winners, including Honest Pleasure (1975 champion 2-year-old colt), What a Summer (1977 champion sprinter), and April Run (1982 champion grass mare). Running in Firestone’s familiar green and white silks, Genuine Risk won the 1980 Kentucky Derby (G1), becoming the second filly to win the premier American classic, and remains the only filly on record to win or place in all three of the Triple Crown races. Genuine Risk was honored as the year’s champion 3-year-old filly and the Firestones were honored as Outstanding Owner.

Diana and Bert Firestone
Diana and Bert Firestone Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Through 2016, the Firestones campaigned 51 graded/group stakes winners, which included 17 grade/group 1 winners and five champions. Among their outstanding runners was Theatrical, a six-time grade 1 winner and 1987 Eclipse champion grass horse that put a promising young trainer and future Hall of Famer named Bill Mott on the map.

“Number one, Diana was a good horsewoman. She knew horses, she knew breeding, and understood pedigrees,” recalled Mott. “As important, she and Bert were nice people. They were my ticket to New York and a lot my success I owe to them.”

Mott said he valued the experience the Firestones brought to their racing operation.

“The most difficult time for owners, and even trainers, is the first 10 years,” he said. “After that, they understand things a lot better. The Firestones already had a lot of experience when I started with them in 1987. They had plenty of experience and patience and understanding.”

As breeders, the Firestones produced 11 graded/group winners since 1991, including nine-time graded stakes winner and four-time grade 1 winner Paradise Creek. Among the top runners they bred are grade 1 winner Shinko Lovely, grade 1 winner Chief Honcho, and four-time grade 1 winner Winchester.

Diana Firestone’s enormous love and commitment to equestrian sports was recognized by the American Horse Shows Association with its Walter B. Devereux Trophy, which honors those who have exemplified the ideal of good sportsmanship through commitment, dedication, and service.

They were ardent supporters of horse welfare on many fronts, including as founding committee members for Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center.

“Bert and Diana Firestone, as early members…were instrumental in helping to bring recognition to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech,” said professor emeritus G. Frederick Fregin, who served as director for the center’s first 20 years, in 2021. “The Firestones’ financial gifts to the EMC allowed us to begin service to the equine community with state-of-the-art equipment. Their support continued throughout their tenure on the committee and helped to complete an EMC Advisory Council initiative to purchase new MRI technology.”

Firestone passed her love of horses and farm life to her children. Her daughter Alison Robitaille continues her legacy as a highly competitive Grand Prix rider. Firestone’s family recalled she was passionate, too, about the land on which she raised her family, having owned farms in Virginia, Florida, and Ireland—including Cabin Run, Shenstone, Catoctin, Gilltown and Newstead. She always improved every farm she touched.

“When she wasn’t with her horses or her family, she was watering trees or caring for the gardens, always with a happy dog, or three, tagging along behind her,” the family wrote in a memorial to her.

Firestone once said: “Horses, with the single exception of my family, have been the most important thing in my life.”

She is survived by four children, Lorna Stokes, Christopher Stokes, Cricket MacDonald, and Alison Robitaille; three stepsons, Matthew Firestone, Ted Firestone, and Greg Firestone; and 16 grandchildren.