By Sue Finley
Bob Coglianese, whose work from Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack served as the standard of excellence in racing photography for a generation, died Friday in Boynton Beach, Florida, the New York Racing Association has announced. He was 88.
Coglianese had been ill for several months after a fall requiring surgery.
As NYRA's official track photographer for more than 50 years, Coglianese was noted for images of horses from Kelso and Dr. Fager to Secretariat, Affirmed and Cigar, and most of all for his iconic head-on shot of Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which Sports Illustrated called the greatest racing photo of the 20th century.
“My father worked almost 300 days a year taking photographs at the track, and he treated every day like it was the Belmont Stakes,” said his son Adam, who took over the business from his father in 2013. “Every day was the same–the same dedication to the racing industry and to NYRA. He taught me everything I know, and when I teach people who work for me or amateur photographers, I go back to the advice and the lessons my father taught me.”
“Bob Coglianese was a giant in the world of racetrack photography, with his images among the best ever taken of thoroughbred racing,” said Dave O'Rourke NYRA President and CEO. “Bob combined an extraordinary work ethic with a knack for innovation and a passion for the sport. He was a master at the craft and a mentor to countless photographers working today. NYRA offers our condolences to Bob's family and friends, and we look forward to honoring his memory in the months ahead.”
Secretariat, with jockey Ron Turcotte up, won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to become racing's ninth Triple Crown winner, and Coglianese's memorable head-on shot captures the magnitude of what many consider to be the greatest racing performance ever. The image still crops up in books and magazine features and is commemorated in a floor-to-ceiling mural on the first floor of the Belmont Park grandstand.
As was his style, Coglianese underplayed how he happened to get the shot. “It was a big race, it was the Belmont Stakes, and there was a photo stand over there and I was on it, shooting the race,” he said in 2018. “It just so happened I got that shot.”
Coglianese earned two Eclipse Awards for excellence in racing photography. “He would always say the Eclipse Awards were luck,” said Adam, “but he was very proud of his Eclipse Awards. For a long time, he was the only person who had won two Eclipse Awards. He captured two images that you couldn't duplicate if you tried.” Coglianese was also the winner of the George Featherston Award in the mid-eighties.
His Eclipse Award-winning photos came in 1972, when he caught a horse and a bird hitting the wire at the same time at Aqueduct, and in 1980 for “The Savage,” a photo of the 1980 Tremont S., where Great Prospector reached over and savaged the winner, Golden Derby.
Coglianese was part of NYRA's small and elite fraternity of official photographers with roots going back more than than a century. In 1952, while in his teens, he went to work at the New York tracks, assisting his uncle, Mike Sirico, who had been a NYRA photographer since 1920. Sirico had been brought into the game as an apprentice to famed Charles C. [C.C.] Cook, whose New York track photos date to the very first years of the 20th century.
In 1955, Sirico took over as NYRA's official photographer. Coglianese assumed the role in 1962, and was succeeded by his son, Adam, who holds the position today. Along the way, Bob Coglianese's pictures became memorable not just for all the famous horses and races he covered from Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course as well as Gulfstream Park in the winter, but sometimes as historical documents that demonstrate how racing has evolved.
On March 14, 1969 at Aqueduct, Coglianese was on hand to record Barbara Jo Rubin's victory aboard Bravy Galaxy, which made her the first female jockey to win a race in New York. And he was also there during the post parade where, as Rubin recalled a few years ago, people were yelling at her to give up racing and go home. He was also there afterwards when Rubin was warmly congratulated by future Hall of Famer Angel Cordero; the photo of the two of them appeared in newspapers around the country and signaled an acceptance of Rubin in New York that had eluded her elsewhere.
He shot the numerous celebrities who came out to the races as well. “He used to go on and on about the celebrities,” said Adam. “I remember growing up and he told me that he shot Barbra Streisand and asked her to hold up an Aqueduct program. He'd say, `just imagine getting Barbra Streisand today!'”
A strict taskmaster who insisted that people do their job properly, Coglianese was joined by his son Adam in the business after graduating from school in the early 1990s.
“It was my decision to go into the business in the nineties after college,” said Adam. “It was at the tail end of film, which was a heck of lot more involved than the digital world we live in today. I had to be at work on time, I had to develop the film, I had to get my hands wet. My father didn't give me a break when it was raining or snowing or it was freezing. I went through the same tutelage that my father went through because my father worked for his uncle, Mike Sirico.”
Adam worked alongside his father for 20 years before Bob Coglianese retired in 2013. Before his full retirement, when he felt comfortable leaving his son with the business, he started spending winters in the South of France, with which he had fallen in love. Later, owner Seymour Cohn introduced him to Anguilla, and he began spending winters there. But even after retirement, he spent summers at Saratoga.
“He would spend the summers at the booth at Saratoga with my mother, selling his famous photos, current champions and the prominent horses of the year,” said his son. “And he would have countless interactions with people about the history of the photos, and how he took this photo and what horses he liked. He would argue with people that Seattle Slew was better than Secretariat and vice versa, and voice his opinion about who he liked best.”
Among his favorite photos were two workout shots of Secretariat. “He recalled how beautiful the horse looked,” said Adam. “The way Ron Turcotte on him was so stretched out. He always spoke of that picture.” The second picture of one of Secretariat's works served as the model for the statue in the Belmont paddock. “He said it was shot in the early morning hours at a very slow shutter speed,” said Adam.
But while he will always be intrinsically linked to Secretariat, his son said he saw and remembered so many of the greats. “His favorite horses were Seattle Slew, Kelso. They just go on and on. He saw countless champions, and not just Secretariat. His first time at the racetrack was in 1952, when Native Dancer broke his maiden, and he kept that program his whole life.”
Coglianese is survived by his wife Rosalind, son Adam, grandson Ethan and daughter-in-law Tia Sozzi.
In lieu of flowers, the Coglianese family asks the horse racing community to kindly consider a donation to the Belmont Child Care Association, the Backstretch Employee Service Team or the New York Race Track Chaplaincy.
These non-profit organizations provide a host of services and support to the backstretch community in New York, and Bob valued their collective mission deeply.
“He loved going to the track,” said Adam Coglianese. “He loved sitting in the backyard talking to people. It was always about the history of racing in Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. He loved what he did. Loved it. And he was definitely the pioneer of racetrack photography.”
“I have known Bob since I was five years old. My father was the assistant trainer for Robert DeBonis back in the 70s and 80s. Bob was one of the greatest guys that I've ever met. A great photographer. I became friends with Adam and they're like family to me. I can't say enough good things about Bob. He was always a gentlemen to me, since I was a kid. Back then, you couldn't bring a kid into the win photo and my father would sneak me in and somehow, Bob would let it happen. As a kid, it was the biggest deal in the world to be in a win photo. I won a race today, the fourth race at Aqueduct, and I swear Bob was watching over me.” -Jay Provenzano, Flying Partners Racing
“I was the photo services coordinator at NYRA from 1985-1987, and, as a 22-year-old when I started the job, I was terrified of Bob. He would call me down to his office when he would find an uncredentialed photographer in the winner's circle, and I would ride down the elevator with dread. I would get a loud and serious lecture—very loud and very serious–about his rights as the contract holder for NYRA, and would be informed that it was my job to make sure that contract was enforced, and that I wasn't protecting his rights. And you know what? He was right. He taught me more about doing my job properly than anyone I ever met. I came to enjoy our long talks about his winters in Nice and Anguilla, and will miss his warm smile and big heart.” -Sue Finley, TDN Publisher
“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the Coglianese family. Bob Coglianese's legacy will live on through his beautiful & legendary photographs. How lucky the New York racing community was to have him and to have his son continue in his footsteps.” -Sackatoga Stables
“Legendary Bob Coglianese was one of our sport's all-time great photographers. He shared the magnificence of our sport with the world. Condolences to all who loved him. Thank you, Bob, for your life's service to our industry. You inspired so many of us.” -Barbara Livingston, DRF photographer
“RIP Bob Coglianese. He once told me the story of (The Savage), which he said became his biggest seller (even more than Secretariat's Belmont). He took this picture with what I believe is called a plate camera, which gives a photographer one chance to get the image they want. When he went into the darkroom after the race, he didn't like this shot because he felt the rail ruined it, so threw the plate in the trash. Someone else saw it and pointed out how unique it was, so he decided to develop it. The rest is history. Think of how many great horses and races Bob Coglianese photographed over the decades. It is truly amazing. What a professional he was at his craft and what a life he lived. Sincere condolences to Adam and the rest of the Coglianese family, and all who knew (him).” -Ray Paulick
“Very sad news that the fotog titan Bob Coglianese has passed at 88. In addition to his legendary talent with a camera, innovative spirit and tireless work ethic, he was warm, generous, caring and funny. Deepest sympathies to Ros and Adam, his countless friends and admirers.” -Steve Byk