Thomas M. DeChiara is a man of many passions. The co-owner of Westchester Laser Associates in Rye Brook with a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Columbia University, DeChiara spent 20 years using stem cells to make genetic mutations in mice for drug research at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Tarrytown.
His self-styled “man cave” of a cottage in Harrison is decorated with his personal pursuits. A keyboard and musical notations off the dining area are testaments to his interest in Mozart — though he plays only with his right hand. A golf bag and a rack of golf balls stand at attention in the living area. “Star Trek” memorabilia attests to his fondness for the original series. (None of the sequels need apply to this Trekkie, who named his Golden Retriever “Captain” after the series’ main character, Capt. James T. Kirk.)
But the dominant theme in his Northern home — DeChiara also has a place in North Carolina — and among his avocations is his love of Thoroughbreds, particularly winners of the Triple Crown races, as seen in his collection of some 50 baseball caps and more than 20 photographs, prints and paintings.
“They’re such beautiful animals,” he says, “and it’s fun to go to the breeding farms. They parade them around and you can see them up close and pet them.”
DeChiara became interested in horseracing — he’ll place a bet only on the big races — at the right moment. It was 1978, the year after Seattle Slew captured the Triple Crown and five years after Secretariat’s stunning trifecta, and Affirmed was vying with Alydar to become the ’70s’ third Crown winner. Like many great pairs of rivals — Ali and Frazier, Phelps and Lochte, Nadal and Djokovic — they were temperamental opposites, with Affirmed the laidback yin to Alydar’s high-strung yang. But they shared a fate for running and a lineage that wound its way through the great Native Dancer back to the legendary Man o’ War, perhaps the greatest racehorse America ever produced. (Technically, Alydar and Affirmed were uncle and nephew, Alydar being Native Dancer’s grandson and Affirmed, his great-grandson.) Though Affirmed would best Alydar seven out of 10 times — including the taut Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes — Alydar earned his share of admirers in becoming the only horse to finish second in all three Crown battles. Among those admirers is DeChiara, who notes that Alydar was the greater stud. And indeed, his descendants include sons Alysheba, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and Easy Goer, who deprived Sunday Silence of the Triple Crown in the 1989 Belmont Stakes.
Alydar was euthanized in 1990 after breaking a leg in mysterious circumstances that many believe had to do with insurance. Affirmed was euthanized in 2001 after developing laminitis — which is what Secretariat succumbed to as well. But the rivals live on in an image to the left of DeChiara’s fireplace — coming home in the Belmont, neck and neck, framed by the past, frozen in time.
It would be 38 long years before American Pharoah galvanized the horse world and American culture with his Triple Crown magic last summer. (The Pharoah — whom DeChiara calls “a professional” — will soon grace his man cave in the form of a print by equine artist Michael Geraghty.) But DeChiara’s love for the sport was off and running — taking him from Aqueduct Racetrack to Santa Anita Park and into the past. That’s DeChiara posing with the statue of Seabiscuit at Santa Anita, and Seabiscuit — the little horse that lit a nation during the dark days of the Great Depression — in a rare black-and-white photograph that shows him flying around the track with jockey George Woolf, all four legs off the ground at once. This gift to DeChiara from the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation is dated Oct. 26, 1938 — a week before the horse’s “Match of the Century” at Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, against the vaunted 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. As with Affirmed and Alydar, there was a strong blood tie between the Admiral and Seabiscuit, the son and grandson of Man o’ War respectively. Though the fast-starting Admiral was considered a lock to win, steady, persistent Seabiscuit gained the day.
Such is DeChiara’s collection: Each picture tells a story of these epic characters, and each holds a memory. There are his Moneighs — actual paintings by champion horses auctioned to support their less fortunate brethren — by Giacomo and Ten Most Wanted. (Think Abstract Expressionism with horseshoe signatures.) They’re right next to a handicap sheet that shows the field for the 2005 Kentucky Derby in which Giacomo was a long shot, along with Closing Argument, and Afleet Alex, the favorite. Sure enough, Giacomo won, Closing Argument placed and Afleet Alex showed. DeChiara was there at Churchill Downs, sitting next to a man who got it right, winning more than $133,000. DeChiara accompanied the man to collect his winnings and listened as the cashier told the man, who wanted cash, that “this was going to take some time.”
Perhaps DeChiara’s collection can best be summed up by his Geraghty print, “Memories of Legends,” which depicts the faint outline of Secretariat, Slew, Man o’ War, Citation and other champs in a race for the ages. So many ghosts.
But DeChiara is already looking ahead to the showdown between Mohaymen, the best of the East, versus Nyquist, the best of the West, in the Florida Derby April 2, a preview of the Kentucky Derby.
Sounds as if it’s time for more artwork. And more memories.