Equine photographer Tony Leonard dies at age 89

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comJuly 14, 2012 

Famed equine photographer Tony Leonard, who photographed hundreds of Thoroughbreds including Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Barbaro during his 50-year career, died Saturday at Lexington's Homestead Nursing Center, according to his co-guardian Rebecca Naser. He was 89.

Naser said Mr. Leonard died holding the hand of his wife of 66 years, Adelle Bergantino, who helped him in his photography business.

Born Leonard Anthony Bergantino on Aug. 8, 1922, in Cincinnati, Mr. Leonard served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he became a professional entertainer, performing in nightclubs across the country, often with his wife, a dancer. He performed at New York's Radio City Music Hall and eventually on Broadway.

In a 2010 Herald-Leader interview, Mr. Leonard said Bob Hope's manager gave him the stage name Tony Leonard.

Mr. Leonard came to Lexington with Adelle to appear at the old LaFlame nightclub on Winchester Road in the early 1960s and decided to stay.

Mr. Leonard, whose hobby was photography, began taking pictures of horses, and it soon became his profession. He was known for his action shots and expertise in showing off a horse's strength and lines, known as its conformation, former Keeneland chief executive Ted Bassett told the Herald-Leader in 2010.

"He was a perfectionist," Lexington horsewoman Anita Madden said in 2010. "He worked so hard to make sure your horse was shown off to its very best. There's an art to that and an artist's eye involved."

Mr. Leonard often reminisced about serving as the queen of England's personal photographer on her visits to Kentucky and about working for Elizabeth Arden, the late cosmetics mogul who owned a horse farm in Lexington. One of his photos was in Ronald Reagan's collection.

He also continued to entertain. Mr. Leonard once sang The Star-Spangled Banner at Yankee Stadium and regularly sang in Rupp Arena to open University of Kentucky basketball games.

Naser, Mr. Leonard's co-guardian, said Saturday that one of his most iconic photos was of Secretariat in the paddock before the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

When "Big Red" was retired to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Mr. Leonard continued to capture the champion romping in his paddock or duly posed for more formal shots, including the last formal portrait done of Secretariat not long before his death in October 1989, Naser said.

Mr. 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, Naser said.

In 2004, the United Nations gave him the International Photographic Council Lifetime Achievement Award. Naser said that in 1994, Mr. Leonard's photograph of the field rounding the turn at Keeneland Race Course during a spring snowstorm earned him an Eclipse Award.

In 2009, the deteriorating medical, financial and living conditions of Mr. Leonard and his wife came to the attention of authorities in Lexington, and the court made them wards of the state. In March 2010, the Herald-Leader highlighted the couple's placement in a state guardianship program, which drew criticism at the time for being understaffed and limited by budget constraints.

A page on Facebook called "Support Tony Leonard and the Protection of his Legacy" drew 1,354 members.

In May 2010, Mr. Leonard, his wife and their relatives won their effort in court to end the state's control of Mr. Leonard's extensive collection of negatives of Thoroughbred racing champions.

In June 2010, the couple moved into Lexington's Richmond Place in an assisted-living environment. But Adelle Bergantino had a medical setback that resulted in her being moved to Homestead Nursing Center in Lexington, and Mr. Leonard wanted to be with her.

Mr. Leonard's interest in photography never waned, Naser said. She said he never lost his love of horses, and he and Adelle made a final trip to Claiborne Farm in May.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Leonard is survived by his sister Mary Lou Horn and nieces and nephews.

W.R. Milward Funeral Directors in Lexington is in charge of arrangements.

Valarie Honeycutt-Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

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