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Tony Leonard, Thoroughbred Photographer
Tony Leonard at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, photo by Bobby Shiflet

by Patricia N. Saffran

An exhibition at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Saratoga Springs, NY
Racing’s Greatest and America’s Oldest: Selections from the Tony Leonard Collection, 46 photos are on view July 21, 2017 for at least one full year.

“Historically, I don’t think there’s a more important collection of Thoroughbred photographs in the world because of the era that Tony’s photos represent,” says Bobby Shiflet, one of the owners of the Tony Leonard Collection of over 500,000 negatives and photographs. He is also the owner of Frames On Main, an art and photography gallery in Paris, KY. He continues, “Tony took his photos during the Golden Era of racing. He photographed Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed and other famous horses like Alydar, John Henry, Cigar, Sunday Silence and Mr. Prospector. He loved to drop over to Claiborne Farm to photograph Secretariat, the Elvis of horses, in his paddock, not just on race days.” Hall of Fame jockeys Chris McCarron, Chris Antley, Jorge Velasquez, Pat Day and many others were Leonard’s subjects and are included in the exhibit.

Secretariat Walking at Belmont June 9, 1973 (Belmont Park)
Secretariat Walking at Belmont, June 9, 1973 (Belmont Park)
The 1973 Belmont Stakes is one that’s hard to forget. Seen here walking with groom Eddie Sweat, Secretariat was about to make Thoroughbred racing history at Belmont Park. Secretariat and Ron Turcotte made winning seem easy as they turned for home at the top of the stretch, winning the Belmont by an astounding 31 lengths. Secretariat’s time of 2:24 for the 1-1/2 mile distance and his margin of victory still stand as Belmont Stakes records today. Secretariat entered the Hall of Fame with the Class of 1974.

Mr. Shiflet adds,“Tony was famous as a conformation photographer and was flown all over the world to take photos of important horses. He didn’t invent the conformation photo, but he did perfect it. If you were a groom standing in the hot sun holding the horse for an hour so Tony could get the exact moment when the horse looked its best and his ears were just right, then you hated him, but if you were a horse owner, you loved him because he would get the perfect shot. Tony was the official photographer whenever the Queen visited Kentucky, traveling in her motorcade. He also took photos of many celebrities at the track.”

Tony Leonard did not start out as a photographer. He was born Leonard Anthony Bergantino on Aug. 8, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bobby Shiflet explains, “He served in WWII. After the war he became a lounge singer, traveling to different clubs. Eventually, he wound up on Broadway. Tony changed his name at the suggestion of Bob Hope’s manager. He moved to Lexington, KY, in 1961 with his wife, Adelle, where he sang at La Flame nightclub.

“One day Tony’s wife gave him a camera, and some Thoroughbred owners in the club invited him to photograph on their farms. He became known for his photos of the stallion Ribot that were featured in the local newspaper. Tony’s photography career was then launched, and singing became a hobby. ” As the years went by, his reputation grew and he kept taking photos, amassing a huge number of images.

Mr. Shiflet says, “Many consider Tony ‘the Ansel Adams of Equine Photography.’ He won the International Photographic Council Lifetime Achievement Award by the United Nations in 2004, and he was honored with an Eclipse Award.”

Bobby Shiflet was instrumental in saving the valuable photograph collection in its entirety. He explains, “It was serendipitous that in 2009 I called Tony’s house and a lawyer for Tony and his wife, Adelle answered the phone. I had lost touch with Tony for about a year. I had been selling Tony’s Thoroughbred photos for over twenty years in my gallery on Main Street. Besides being a framer, I’m also a photographer and show my work as well as other photographers. I had been leaving messages on Tony’s answering machine to buy more prints to sell in my gallery and didn’t get called back. His message box was always full. The lawyer who answered Tony’s phone told me that Tony and his wife were in a nursing home, and he was there to decide what to keep or throw away. I explained that I sold Tony’s photographs and I said to him, ‘These photos are the history of the Thoroughbred industry in its heyday.’ I drove over the next night to the lawyer’s office and told him, ‘save all of it!’ I said, ‘do you see this photo of Seattle Slew on your desk? It’s historic.’ I explained to him how valuable the collection was and that it should be kept in its entirety.” It turns out this was also Tony Leonard’s wish - that his collection stay intact.

Bobby Shiflet
Bobby Shiflet

By 2010, the nursing home bill needed to be satisfied and more lawyers became involved. As they had already sold the Leonards’ home there was a discussion to sell the entire collection. Mr. Shiflet says, “The attorneys really didn’t get paid for all the hours they put in for their effort to keep the collection together. They gave their time and advice until the nursing home bill could be paid without sacrificing the collection.”

A few months before Tony Leonard died at 89, in 2012, Mr. Shiflet contacted those whom he felt would help him purchase the collection – the only way to safeguard it as a whole. He spoke to Dave Sorrell, the CFO of Stonerside Farm, Paris, KY, and John Adger, the bloodstock agent of Stonerside. Along with Bobby Shiflet, they purchased the entire collection under the aegis of the court representatives for the Leonard estate.

In 2016, the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art in Lexington, KY, showed selections from the Tony Leonard Collection in an exhibition, Through the Lens of Tony Leonard: 50 years of photography. As to the current exhibition, Bobby Shiflet says, “As owners of the collection we’re very happy to have been able to make this exhibit happen. Tony would have been very proud of his photos being shown at the National Museum of Racing. I just wish he had lived to see it.”

Tony Leonard - From the Paddock, 1978 Travers
Tony Leonard - From the Paddock, 1978 Travers
August 19, 1978 - One of the most iconic views of Saratoga Race Course includes its saddling area and paddock. This picturesque tree-lined path leads racing’s greatest stars to the track where they will test their skills on the course that earned the nickname of the “Graveyard of Favorites” (later referred to as the “Graveyard of Champions”) due to its history of upsets. Seen here, Triple Crown winner Affirmed leads the field with jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., subbing in for injured regular rider Steve Cauthen, to one of the most controversial editions of the Travers Stakes in history.
Tony Leonard - Morning Workout August 19, 1978
Tony Leonard "Morning Workout August 19, 1978"
Tony Leonard - Morning Fog August 8, 1963
Tony Leonard - Morning Fog August 8, 1963
Tony Leonard -  Top of the Stretch August 21, 1994
Tony Leonard - Top of the Stretch August 21, 1994
Tony Leonard - Seattle Slew October 4, 1990 (Three Chimneys)
Tony Leonard - Seattle Slew October 4, 1990 (Three Chimneys)
Seattle Slew holds the distinction of being the only Triple Crown winner to enter the Kentucky Derby as an undefeated champion. Bred by Kentucky horseman Ben Castleman and owned by Mr. and Mrs. Mickey Taylor together with Dr. and Mrs. Jim Hill, Seattle Slew earned championship honors at 2, 3 and 4. In retirement, Seattle Slew became a champion sire. His most famous offspring include 1984 Kentucky Derby winner Swale, and fellow Hall of Famers A.P. Indy and Slew o’ Gold. Seattle Slew entered the Hall of Fame with the Class of 1981.
Tony Leonard - Morning Bath at Saratoga August 1968
Tony Leonard - Morning Bath at Saratoga August 1968

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