Famed photographer Tony Leonard happy he's no longer a state ward

Famed photographer optimistic despite some setbacks

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comAugust 16, 2010 

Famed equine photographer Tony Leonard said he is enjoying new freedoms now that he no longer is a ward of the state of Kentucky.

"I think I've got a chance at going back in business ... I'm going to make it a bright future," Leonard, 88, said Thursday in a telephone interview from his Lexington apartment.

In the past few months, Leonard's transition from state guardianship to a more independent lifestyle has had its ups and downs, including a medical setback for his wife, Adelle Bergantino, and ongoing efforts to stabilize the couple's finances.

Leonard and his wife are now dependent on the sale of their assets for their livelihood, according to guardian Rebecca Naser, a Lexington attorney.

One of the first initiatives is setting up an eBay auction of one of Leonard's autographed photographs of the champion racehorse Secretariat that will be framed along with a Secretariat horse shoe and some of the horse's tail hair. All were part of Leonard's personal collection, Naser said.

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 enjoyed worldwide recognition and counted many celebrities among his acquaintances. But in 2009, the deteriorating medical, financial and living conditions of Leonard and his wife came to the attention of authorities in Lexington, and the court made them wards of the state.

In March, the Herald-Leader highlighted the couple's placement in a state guardianship program that is understaffed and limited by budget constraints.

In May, Leonard, his wife and their relatives won their effort in court to end the state's control of Leonard's massive negative collection of Thoroughbred racing champions and the state's placement of the couple in Bluegrass Care and Rehabilitation Center in Lexington.

Now that the couple have private guardians — Naser and Leonard's nephew Matt Bergantino — a new financial plan is in the works. The collection will be kept intact and in storage while the best possible home is found for it, Naser said.

"We want to get a better inventory of the negatives and the value of the collection," she said.

Meanwhile, Naser said a Web site will be in operation soon that will sell Leonard's works. She also hopes to arrange for his photographs to be sold at Keeneland Race Course and the Kentucky Horse Park.

A contract has been signed to sell the couple's home near the Horse Park, and the proceeds will go toward paying their debt, Naser said.

"They don't have the money to keep their home and get around-the-clock attendants," said Masten Childers, a Lexington attorney who represents Matt Bergantino. "This is a perfect example of elderly persons or incapacitated persons who don't have extensive resources."

In June, the couple moved into Lexington's Richmond Place in an assisted living environment. But Childers said Adelle Bergantino had a medical setback that resulted in her being moved to Homestead Nursing Center in Lexington.

Leonard said Thursday he wants to be with his wife. Childers said arrangements are being made for the couple to stay together.

Leonard, meanwhile, said moral support from people such as former University of Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall, horsewoman Anita Madden and other people in the Thoroughbred business have kept his spirits up and motivated him to want to work on a book project.

The photographer said he is gratified a page on the Facebook social networking site called ''Support Tony Leonard and the Protection of his Legacy" had drawn 1,464 members by Thursday.

"I wish I could give everyone of them a free photograph," he said.

Leonard noted that earlier this month, he celebrated his 88th birthday at a party with several fellow photographers and many people in the community who care about his fate.

"They are the people," Leonard said, "who kept me alive."

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

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