05/03/2017 5:26PM

Lifelong pursuit of horsepower brings de Tomaso to Kentucky Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Isabelle de Tomaso owns Kentucky Derby contender Irish War Cry.

Isabelle de Tomaso says her favorite racecar was a red OSCA 750S. De Tomaso is still fond of horsepower that comes in a red package, only now it has four hooves instead of four tires.

A New Jersey homebred, the chestnut colt Irish War Cry is revving up for the Kentucky Derby for de Tomaso, whose father was the late Amory L. Haskell, the first president and chairman of the Monmouth Park Jockey Club and the namesake of its signature race.

“We’re all pinching ourselves,” said Isobel Ellis, de Tomaso’s niece. “It really is a labor of love for her. It means so much for somebody who’s been in horse racing almost five decades to finally get a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

Hope Jones, another niece, and great-niece Ellie Glaccum were on hand to represent de Tomaso, 86, when Irish War Cry won the Wood Memorial; the owner watched on television from her Florida home. Several family members are gathering in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, and trainer Graham Motion said de Tomaso will “absolutely” be among them.

“She’s very excited,” Motion said. “She’s a little bit low-profile. She’s a little bit hard of hearing. She was a car-racing driver, as many of you know, so she did some damage to her ears when she was younger. So, she finds doing interviews a little bit hard, but she’s going to be here, believe me.”

De Tomaso, born in New York City, followed her parents in developing a passion for both cars and horses. Haskell, a former General Motors executive, was instrumental in efforts to bring parimutuel wagering to New Jersey, organized a group of prominent New Jersey residents to build a modern racetrack, and then served in leadership roles at Monmouth.

He also bred and raced horses, including Blue Sparkler, the champion older mare of 1956. Meanwhile, her mother, Annette, bred her own horses, including 1938 Wood Memorial third-place finisher Opera Hat.

With that background, de Tomaso, one of four children, grew up riding horses at her family’s Woodland Farm in Middletown, N.J. She also demonstrated early on that she wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. For her 21st birthday, her father gifted her money to purchase a Chevrolet – a General Motors car – from a local dealer. Instead, she secretly went to Philadelphia to purchase an MG-TD.

A series of fortuitous encounters with employers, combined with de Tomaso’s iron will, opened the pathway to her remarkable driving career. In the early 1950s, de Tomaso was working for a West Palm Beach, Fla., research company that specialized in the study and use of atomic batteries. The owners of the company were car enthusiasts and encouraged her to take up amateur racing, but she found some doors closed to her.

“Women were not welcomed in real competition,” de Tomaso said. “Yes, there were quite a few women in SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] racing, but they were all races exclusively for women. I never entered any of those races.”

By 1954, she was working as an accountant at a Florida travel agency, affording her discounted plane tickets and the ability to travel overseas. She learned that in Europe, women were allowed to race cars on the open circuit and in fact were paid to do so. By the summer of 1955, she had applied for a professional license through the Royal Automobile Club, purchased a Maserati, and was driving regularly against male drivers while making a home in Italy.

“She had no problem picking up and moving over there, where she’d be seen as more of an equal,” Ellis said.

She met Argentine driver Alejandro de Tomaso while paying for an engine at the Maserati factory. They married and continued to race together in Europe, South America, and the United States, winning their class in the 1958 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida.

The couple later founded DeTomaso Automobili in 1959 in Modena, Italy, and went into business building their own high-performance racecars and handmade luxury sports cars. Some of the models, such as the DeTomaso Longchamp, were named for famous racecourses.

De Tomaso also began to pursue another family passion by breeding racehorses in Europe. In 1969, she purchased the winning mare Tabebuia II, who would become her foundation mare, in Newmarket. Tabebuia II produced Italian stakes winners Task, Lupo di Mare, and Irish Trip. The latter produced stakes winner The Irish Knight and six other winners, including Irish Genius, who in turn begat the Polish Numbers filly Irish Sovereign.

That mare won three times from 13 starts before joining the broodmare band. Also the dam of Grade 3-placed Irish Strait and stakes-placed Irish Politics, she delivered the Curlin colt Irish War Cry in May 2014 at Overbrook Farm in Colts Neck, N.J., where de Tomaso boards her mares.

According to The Jockey Club’s state fact book, 118 registered foals were born in New Jersey in 2014, representing 0.5 percent of the nation’s foal crop that was eligible for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Only two New Jersey-breds have won the Kentucky Derby – Regret in 1915 and Cavalcade in 1934.

The family has “put a lot of time, money, and effort into breeding in New Jersey,” said Michael Campbell, executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey. “Mrs. de Tomaso could breed her horses anywhere in the country. She has good mares, she breeds to top stallions. To breed and foal in New Jersey is admirable.”

Motion said de Tomaso began sending her foals to him at Fair Hill about “five or six years ago.”

“My aunt had admired him from afar for a number of years,” Ellis said of Motion. “She decided she wanted to ship one of her mares from Italy to the East Coast and thought long and hard about what kind of trainer she wanted. And she actually sat down and wrote a letter of introduction – handwrote out who she was, who her horse was, and put it in the mail. Graham called about a week later. I think he was a little shocked – people just don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”

Motion said he receives three or four horses every year from de Tomaso, with Irish Strait and Irish Politics also among his trainees. He also trains horses for de Tomaso’s sister Hope Haskell Jones, with multiple stakes winner Party Boat currently on the track.

Completing the Kentucky Derby team is Rajiv Maragh. The jockey missed 16 months of action due to a broken back, broken ribs, and a collapsed lung he suffered in a spill at Belmont in July 2015.

“I think it takes the greatest form of courage to come back from something like what he went through,” de Tomaso said.

And de Tomaso, who has been involved in high-risk sports throughout her life, is not merely paying lip service.

“She’s seen people involved in car crashes,” Ellis said. “She’s had friends who have passed away as a result. She knows what kind of fortitude it takes.”

While one can’t predict what fate has in store when that gate opens Saturday, one could hazard a guess as to Irish War Cry’s agenda this summer. Ellis jokingly called the Haskell Invitational, for which the family presents the trophy each year, “the only race that matters.”

“The Haskell is huge to them,” Motion said. “That’s somewhere we really want to be. I’d like to be able to get him there, for her.”