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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