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In memoriam: Diana Firestone a celebrated equestrian and icon of the racing industry

Left to right: Timothy D. Sands, Virginia Tech President, Bertram and Diana Firestone, and Dr. Cyril Clarke, Executive Vice President and Provost. Photo provided by Dr. Nat White.

Diana Melville Johnson Firestone, a founding member of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (EMC) Advisory Council, died on February 12 in Palm Beach, Florida, at the age of 91.

Diana had a lifelong love of horses and was an accomplished rider from a young age. Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the daughter of the son of a co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, she learned to ride alongside her siblings in England, enjoying competitive success early on and, as a young adult, even competing on the U.S. equestrian team.

While attending The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, Diana enjoyed fox hunting in the beautiful Northern Virginia countryside and competed in hunter jumpers.

After graduating from Bennett College in Millbrook, New York, Diana’s love for horses and all equestrian sports continued to be her focus.

Diana was initially married to Richard Stokes and then in 1973 to Bertram Firestone, a real estate developer who was already an accomplished horseman and very much involved and becoming quite successful in the horse racing world. Together they purchased a 2,000-acre Virginia nursery in Waterford, Virginia, named it Catoctin Stud, and turned it into a notable breeding and training farm. Catoctin Stud typically had 20 to 30 horses in training at any one time, along with about 30 broodmares. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, the experienced, hands-on dynamic horse couple became a formidable force in the horse racing industry. Their racing success was not limited just to the United States, and success after success in Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom followed. 

With horses already in training in Ireland, the Firestones decided to purchase Gilltown Stud and Sallymount Stud, in Co. Kildare, Ireland from the Aga Khan. King’s Company (IRE), a horse purchased at the Tattersall sales, Newmarket, raced successfully in Europe and became the cornerstone for their breeding operation in Ireland. 

The couple often went fox hunting during their frequent visits to Ireland – not a pastime for the faint of heart – ultimately becoming Joint Masters of the Kildare Foxhounds, Co. Kildare.

The Firestones became highly successful breeders and owners of thoroughbred horses and were honored with the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Owners in 1980 and the New York Turf Writers Association Award for Outstanding Breeders in 1982. They won the Kentucky Derby in 1980 with Genuine Risk, who at that time became only the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby. 

The Firestones moved to Newstead Farm in Upperville, Virginia, in 1991, which was already set up as a thoroughbred horse breeding farm. Choosing quality stock to join their broodmare band they successfully bred and raced seven Eclipse winners, which ran under the Firestone’s green and white silks. 

For many years the couple hunted with the Loudoun and Middleburg Hunts, and Diana always played a key role and was very hands-on during the breaking process of horses at their stud. 

In recognition of her commitment to equestrian sports, the American Horse Shows Association awarded her with the prestigious Walter B. Devereux Trophy for good sportsmanship, commitment, and service to the equestrian world.

Diana enjoyed her life in Upperville, passing her love of horses and the outdoor farm life onto her children and grandchildren; she cared deeply about her family, her horses, her extensive and beautiful gardens, and her numerous canine companions. In later years trail riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Newstead Farm with her grandchildren was a special pleasure. 

In 1984, the Firestones became founding members of the EMC’s Advisory Council, joining other like-minded people involved in the horse industry who saw the need for a state-of-the-art equine dedicated emergency hospital in the Northern Virginia area.

Described as genuine and kind by many in the horse racing industry, the Firestones were extremely generous supporters of the Equine Medical Center.  Their support to purchase advanced diagnostic imaging equipment helped to elevate diagnosis and treatment capabilities keeping the EMC on the cutting edge of equine medicine and surgery.  

“It was always a pleasure to work on Diana and Bert’s horses, they were knowledgeable, caring owners who wanted nothing but the best for their horses” shared Nathaniel White, Professor Emeritus of Equine Surgery and former EMC director from 2003 to 2012. “In recognition of their dedication to the Center, they received the EMC Distinguished Service Award in 2014.”

Diana is survived by her sister Elaine Johnson Wold, her four children, Cricket MacDonald, Christopher Stocks, Alison Robitaille, and three stepsons Ted Firestone, Matthew Firestone, and Greg Firestone, and a grand total of 16 grandchildren.