Court ends state guardianship of famed horse photographer and wife

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMay 4, 2010 

Famed equine photographer Tony Leonard and his wife, Adelle Bergantino, will no longer be wards of the state, according to a ruling Tuesday in Fayette District Court, Lexington attorney Masten Childers said.

The couple and their relatives went to court to end the state's control of Leonard's massive photo and negative collection of Thoroughbred racing's champions and its placement of Leonard and Bergantino in a Lexington nursing home.

On Tuesday, Trial Commissioner Choya Oliver granted a petition by Leonard's nephew, Matt Bergantino, and Lexington attorney Rebecca Naser to be the couple's private guardians, Childers said.

"Hopefully all the people who have come forward and said they want to help Tony and provide the highest and best possible marketing strategy for the photographs will ... follow through," Childers said.

Proceedings in the mental health division of Fayette District Court are closed, and most documents sealed, but Childers confirmed the transfer of guardianship.

In nearly 50 years as an equine photographer, Leonard captured hundreds of great Thoroughbreds, including Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Barbaro.

As both a photographer and a singer, he rubbed elbows with celebrities and enjoyed worldwide recognition and a remarkable career.

But in 2009, the deteriorating medical, financial and living conditions of the couple came to the attention of local authorities, and the court made them wards of the state.

That was followed by efforts in court to move Leonard and his wife out from under the guardianship of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and to make sure proceeds from the sale of their belongings are used to give them the best possible quality of life.

In March, the Herald-Leader highlighted the couple's placement in a state guardianship program that is understaffed and limited by budget constraints. There are at least 2,835 Kentuckians who are active wards of the state.

Childers, who is representing nephew Matt Bergantino on a pro-bono basis, described the transition from state guardianship as "very amicable" and smooth.

As private guardians, Childers said Matt Bergantino and Naser will present a business plan to the court within 90 days that outlines how the couple's assets will be used to provide financial support for Leonard, 87, and Adelle Bergantino, 81.

"We will work to maximize the proceeds for Tony and Adelle's benefit," Naser said.

Several people and various foundations have expressed interest in preserving and acquiring Leonard's collection of photographs and negatives, Childers said.

In addition, Naser said "we're looking at the possibility of private fund-raisers."

Childers said medical assessments will begin immediately to help decide where the couple will live. "Hopefully he and Adelle can go to a less restrictive environment," he said.

They currently live at Bluegrass Care and Rehabilitation Center in Lexington.

On Tuesday, Tony and Adelle appeared in Fayette District Court in good form, the attorney said.

Meanwhile, a page on the Facebook social networking site called "Support Tony Leonard and the Protection of his Legacy" had drawn at least 1,257 members by Tuesday.

"Tony is extremely appreciative of the huge outpouring of support," Childers said.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, 3409.

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