Tony Leonard, a legendary equine photographer who chronicled the golden age of Thoroughbred racing, died July 14 at Homestead Nursing Home in Lexington. He was 89.
Born Leonard Anthony Bergantino on Aug. 8, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Leonard served in the Army during World War II and became a professional entertainer after the war, performing first in nightclubs across the country and eventually on Broadway. He took up the stage name of Tony Leonard at the suggestion of Bob Hope's manager and came to Kentucky in 1961 with his wife Adelle to perform at the old La Flame nightclub on Winchester Road.
Deciding to settle down in the bluegrass, Leonard began taking pictures of horses in the area as a hobby that soon turned into a full-time profession. He first made his name in racing when he went to Darby Dan Farm in Lexington and photographed the great Ribot in his paddock. Several of the photos appeared as part of a feature in the Morning Telegraph and Leonard was on his way to a career as a Thoroughbred photographer.
Leonard spent 50 years taking pictures of racing's greatest stars and developed an outstanding reputation. His photos graced many magazine covers; his style one that many protégés sought to master.
"Tony set the standard that all equine photographers strive to achieve," photographer Matt Goins remarked. "Knowing and working around him was one of the great pleasures of my life."
Leonard was also known for developing the conformation shot, now widely used within the industry.
"My goal in taking a conformation pose is to present each stallion exactly alike," he said of his groundbreaking concept. "That way, breeders could see exactly what they were looking for physically-strong shoulder, correct legs, hind quarters, pastern length, a compact or lengthy body-qualities that would match well with their mare."
Among the many prominent farm owners he met early on were Brownell Combs of Spendthrift Farm and Preston and Anita Madden of Hamburg Place.
"He was a perfectionist," Anita Madden remarked. "He worked so hard to make sure your horse was shown off to its very best. There is an art to that and an artist's eye involved."
Leonard will always be remembered for his many images of the great Secretariat; he followed the Meadow Stable star through the Triple Crown and continued to capture the champion romping in his paddock, or duly posed for more formal shots, when "Big Red" was retired to Claiborne Farm. He shot the last formal portrait of Secretariat not long before the runner's death in October of 1989.
Leonard also chronicled the accomplishments of the only other Triple Crown winners since Secretariat—Seattle Slew and Affirmed—as well as such greats as Spectacular Bid, Cigar, Personal Ensign, and John Henry. He came to be considered "The Ansel Adams of Equine Photography" and was awarded the International Photographic Council Lifetime Achievement Award by the United Nations in 2004. In 1994, his photograph of the field rounding the turn at Keeneland during a spring snowstorm earned him a coveted Eclipse Award. He served as the personal photographer to Queen Elizabeth II of England during both of her visits to the Blue Grass region.
In 2009, Leonard and his wife were made wards of the state due to deteriorating medical and financial conditions. In May 2010 the photographer and his wife, along with relatives, won a court battle to end the state's control of Leonard's collection of negatives of his photos of great Thoroughbreds. The couple moved to Homestead Nursing Center last summer after Adelle had a medical setback that resulted in her being moved from an assisted living environment; Leonard told the Lexington Herald-Leader he wanted to stay with her.
Active well into his eighties, Leonard's interest in photography never waned. He continued to follow advancements in his field, including the arrival of 3-D photography. He never lost his love of horses and, with Adelle, made one final trip to Claiborne Farm in May of 2012.
Leonard is survived by Adelle (nee' Herzog), who served as his partner, friend, and inspiration through their 66 years of marriage, by his sister, Mary Lou Horn, and her husband, Richard, and by many nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews. He will long be remembered by his legion of friends, fans and admirers.
The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. (EDT) July 21, at Milward Funeral Home, 1509 Trent Boulevard in Lexington, with burial in Lexington Cemetery, Visitation at the funeral home will be 3-8 p.m. July 20, and 9-10 a.m. July 21. In lieu of flowers, gifts in memoriam may be made to Old Friends Equine Rescue of Georgetown, Ky., or to Woodford Humane Society of Versailles, Ky.