Tony Leonard: There will never be another

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The first Belmont Stakes I ever attended was in 1988, and I have a clear recollection of my introduction to Tony Leonard that afternoon. As the horses for the big race were leaving the stable area and about to go through the tunnel for their walk to the saddling paddock, I ducked over to the side of the pathway to get a good view of the field.

All of a sudden there was a low, growling sound coming from behind me. “Get outta the way……Get outta the way… Get outta the way.” I turned around and saw a man, holding a camera with a huge lens and with a look of intensity on his face that I’ll never forget.

I learned, then and there, that nothing ever got between Tony Leonard and the perfect image.

A few minutes later, after the horses had moved on to the paddock, that look of intensity transformed itself into a smile so broad and a personality so bright it could light up a room. I never stood between Tony and his photographic subject ever again. In fact, that encounter really helped me understand and appreciate the work of all the equine photographers who patiently wait for just the right moment to snap the shutter.

That afternoon began a long professional association with Tony Leonard, one that started when I was managing editor of Thoroughbred Times, then continued at Blood-Horse magazine a few years a later. He was complicated, sometimes difficult, almost always entertaining. The last few years of his life, when he was taken over as a ward of the state of Kentucky, are impossible for me to understand, but they do nothing to diminish what he accomplished with a camera and a roll of film.

Tony always seemed to get the shot, whether it was a hot-blooded stallion standing perfectly to show off his conformation, a Kentucky Derby winner in full flight for the wire, all four feet off the ground, or the Queen of England greeting people in the paddock at Keeneland. Racetracks and breeding farms were his canvas, the camera his brush to paint the countless masterpieces he created over the years.

Nothing delighted him more than getting the shot and overcoming obstacles like bad lighting or uncooperative animals … and then telling anyone who would listen how he did it.

One day, Tony showed me a collection of some of the spectacular racing pictures he’d taken over the years. I marveled at how he brought a piece of paper to life and wondered aloud why he’d never won an Eclipse Award for outstanding photography.

His demeanor changed suddenly, the gleam in his eye went dull, and he lamented that his best work never got the public recognition he thought it deserved. “No,” he said quietly, “I’ve never won an Eclipse Award.”

“What photos did you nominate?” I asked him.

He looked at me in astonishment and said, “You have to nominate?”

Those were the kind of details that Tony Leonard never paid much attention to. As perfect as his eye was in capturing a moment with his camera, he was imperfect at some of the other details of his profession. I explained the nominating process for the Eclipse Awards and encouraged him to remember the deadline.

Not long afterwards, Tony poked his head into my office at Blood-Horse and asked, politely as always, if I had a minute to look at something. It was a picture he’d taken a few days earlier on a spring afternoon at Keeneland, a full field of Thoroughbreds turning into the stretch on a sloppy track, with big snowflakes falling from the sky. He asked if I would run the photo in that week’s magazine.

I didn’t love it, I told him, and didn’t really have a spot to showcase it. The excitement he had when he walked into my office was gone, and he left deflated and disappointed.

So Tony went across town and showed the same picture to my old boss, Mark Simon, the editor of Thoroughbred Times. I don’t know if Mark had a better eye than me or simply had more faith in Tony’s judgment, but the Times ran the photo, and later that year, Tony remembered to nominate it for an Eclipse Award.

The photo, “Dashing Through the Snow,” won him that elusive Eclipse Award for outstanding photography, and it’s sold many copies over the years as one of his most popular images. As much as I was kicking myself for not seeing the same thing Tony saw, I was very, very happy for him. And he was nice enough in the ensuing years to never remind me of my gaffe in judgment.

Technology eventually narrowed the gap between old pros like Tony Leonard and a new generation of what I sometimes call “button pushers.” He lost some publishing opportunities because he was slow to embrace digital photography, and still insisted on touching up photos by removing lead shanks or adding a gleam to a horse’s eye.

Even in his twilight years, Tony wanted to be at the big races, and I was astonished that some tracks and racing organizations wouldn’t automatically approve photo credential requests from him. I know he could be difficult in the way he handled his business, and more than a few times when I was at Blood-Horse I insisted he be part of our photography team, just so he could be credentialed – though I knew full well he’d never get the images to us in time for the publishing deadline.

Where he really made his mark was in showcasing stallions through conformation photographs that became the gold standard for the industry and now help tell the story of the history of the Thoroughbred breed over the last 50 years. There was something about a Tony Leonard conformation photo that was unique, just like Tony himself. We’ll never see another like him.

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  • Mark Fredenberg

    This year I purchased a photo of Street Sense winning the Derby, which has special meaning to me.  It was taken and signed by Tony Leonard.  I have since researched the man and feel bad learning about his later years in life. But I am proud that I own an original signed photo.  I cherish it even more knowing the story behind the legend and regret not meeting him.

  • Mark Fredenberg

    This year I purchased a photo of Street Sense winning the Derby, which has special meaning to me.  It was taken and signed by Tony Leonard.  I have since researched the man and feel bad learning about his later years in life. But I am proud that I own an original signed photo.  I cherish it even more knowing the story behind the legend and regret not meeting him.

  • Joyce Fogleman

    Ray, what a wonderful tribute to a truly amazing talent AND personality. And by the way, he may have been slow to embrace digital work, but the last years saw him trying his best to keep up and a number of people tried to help him in that pursuit (you know who you are). The stories he could tell were wildly entertaining and the difficulties he and Adelle faced over the last few years broke many of our hearts. It is indeed the end of an era. Tony & Adelle, we salute you both.

  • Joyce Fogleman

    Ray, what a wonderful tribute to a truly amazing talent AND personality. And by the way, he may have been slow to embrace digital work, but the last years saw him trying his best to keep up and a number of people tried to help him in that pursuit (you know who you are). The stories he could tell were wildly entertaining and the difficulties he and Adelle faced over the last few years broke many of our hearts. It is indeed the end of an era. Tony & Adelle, we salute you both.

  • Ann Taylor

    Tony distinguished himself by showcasing the horses — obsessively, skillfully and with as much heart as anyone ever had for a “job”!  His spirit lives on in his volume of work. Wonderful tribute, Ray, thanks for sharing your memories.

  • Ann Taylor

    Tony distinguished himself by showcasing the horses — obsessively, skillfully and with as much heart as anyone ever had for a “job”!  His spirit lives on in his volume of work. Wonderful tribute, Ray, thanks for sharing your memories.

  • Tinky

    Excellent tribute, Ray. Never knew him personally, but always admired his work.

    As you and others have suggested, his photographic record of stallions spanning several decades is of immense value.

  • Tinky

    Excellent tribute, Ray. Never knew him personally, but always admired his work.

    As you and others have suggested, his photographic record of stallions spanning several decades is of immense value.

  • Thomas Allen Pauly

    My idol has passed away…Equine photographer Tony Leonard was a huge
    influence in my career as an equine artist. In the mid 80s, HoofBeats
    magazine wrote a wonderful article on Tony’s techniques of shooting
    horse conformation. This story taught me
    how to photograph conformation shots that provided me with my reference
    material for my paintings. Throughout the years, I have had the
    wonderful opportunity to photograph many Derbies with my idol. The last
    time I saw Tony was at Keeneland Racecourse and I finally told him how
    he assisted in my career and how he taught me the correct way to see
    conformation. Thank you Tony and RIP,  Thomas Allen Pauly …www.horseartist.com

  • Thomas Allen Pauly

    My idol has passed away…Equine photographer Tony Leonard was a huge
    influence in my career as an equine artist. In the mid 80s, HoofBeats
    magazine wrote a wonderful article on Tony’s techniques of shooting
    horse conformation. This story taught me
    how to photograph conformation shots that provided me with my reference
    material for my paintings. Throughout the years, I have had the
    wonderful opportunity to photograph many Derbies with my idol. The last
    time I saw Tony was at Keeneland Racecourse and I finally told him how
    he assisted in my career and how he taught me the correct way to see
    conformation. Thank you Tony and RIP,  Thomas Allen Pauly …www.horseartist.com

  • Terri Zeitz

    Thanks for sharing your stories about Tony Leonard with us. What a fine talent he had. I hope that some of the proceeds from the sales of prints of his negatives go to the benefits he supported.

  • Terri Zeitz

    Thanks for sharing your stories about Tony Leonard with us. What a fine talent he had. I hope that some of the proceeds from the sales of prints of his negatives go to the benefits he supported.

  • Lespackman

    Very nice piece on Tony. I learned how to use an umbrella to catch a horse’s attention for that perfect photo by Tony. It was always a learning experience to see how we could get even though most obnoxious yearling to pose for Tony’s camera if even for a second or two – he still caught a great shot. He was the best and it was an honor to have known him.

  • Lespackman

    Very nice piece on Tony. I learned how to use an umbrella to catch a horse’s attention for that perfect photo by Tony. It was always a learning experience to see how we could get even though most obnoxious yearling to pose for Tony’s camera if even for a second or two – he still caught a great shot. He was the best and it was an honor to have known him.

  • http://twitter.com/slewfan Di

    Ray, Thanks for your tribute to Tony Leonard.  I have several of his signed photos I had purchased over the past years..one of my favorite Thoroughbreds, a portrait of Seattle Slew, and the other is the one you mentioned, “Dashing thru the Snow”…it’s an awesome photo that captures the wonderful sport of Thoroughbred racing and the full fields at Keeneland…one of our favorite race tracks.  RIP Tony and to Adelle, thank you for sharing Tony with us for so many years.

  • http://twitter.com/slewfan Irene

    Ray, Thanks for your tribute to Tony Leonard.  I have several of his signed photos I had purchased over the past years..one of my favorite Thoroughbreds, a portrait of Seattle Slew, and the other is the one you mentioned, “Dashing thru the Snow”…it’s an awesome photo that captures the wonderful sport of Thoroughbred racing and the full fields at Keeneland…one of our favorite race tracks.  RIP Tony and to Adelle, thank you for sharing Tony with us for so many years.

  • Cass

    the world is a sadder place without Tony in it

  • Cass

    the world is a sadder place without Tony in it

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