Four days before the running of last month’s Kentucky Derby, a story was posted on NBCSports.com under my byline, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown, and more specifically, his climactic, 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes in a time of two minutes, 24 seconds, still two seconds faster than any other thoroughbred has run the race. The story was, as the writer says in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, “… the kind of story I enjoy…” A joyful story. Secretariat and his Belmont are cultural touchstones of stunning durability and power in modern American sports, almost bereft of negativity. As I wrote in the piece, only the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s gold medal – the “The Miracle On Ice” – is in the same league for evoking a certain type of emotional response. If you can find the right entry point, and you know your way around a keyboard, Big Red is storytelling gold. Check, and check.
To tell the story of Secretariat’s 50th, I chose a narrative device. We writers love terms like device, because it purports to impose order on the process, as if we are software engineers or carpenters, meticulously building something, rather than typists, desperately trying to corral facts, ideas, quotes, transitions, word length, always right on the edge of losing control of the whole thing. My device was to feature five people who, in various ways, both in life and beyond, had perpetuated the story of Secretariat’s 1973 season and Belmont. Owner Penny (Tweedy) Chenery, jockey Ron Turcotte (the only one still living), race caller Chic Anderson, journalist Bill Nack, photographer Bob Coglianese. With help, I got to the right people, collected strong quotes, added some literary flourishes and in general, didn’t mess up a good thing. The story, as we also like to say, holds up, and should hold up for a long time.
Except one part could be wrong altogether. At the very least, it’s in doubt.
The last character in the piece was Coglianese, the former New York Racing Association track photographer who died last December at the age of 88, and is credited with taking the most famous photograph from the 1973 Belmont Stakes, a picture that was instantly iconic when first published and grew in stature as time pushed it further into the haze of the past, until it became almost mythic, and whichwill be explosively shared and published this week, half a century on from the greatest horse racing performance in history:
My angle on Coglianese was this: He was not an artist, he was a workaday grinder who on that day in 1973 just went to work, took the same shots he always took – “My father shot every race the same way,” said Coglianese’s son, and only child, Adam, who is now the NYRA track photographer, and who I interviewed — and happened to capture one of the most evocative sports images in history. I gilded Coglianese’s story with details of how he might have gone about his day, knowing many of the details of his job and extrapolating others, and I qualified the telling with two strategic insertions of the word likely, just in case.
So it was on that second Saturday in June of 1973, that Bob left the family home in Searington, 10 miles east of Belmont Park in Long Island’s Nassau County, and drove to work. He likely shot not only the Belmont Stakes that day, but all seven of the races that preceded it, and even the one that followed. Ten or 15 minutes before the 5:38 post time, he likely walked across the Belmont loam, climbed the four or five steps to the top of the green, wood, platform, and pre-focused his lens on a point near the finish line. He then waited until Secretariat entered his frame and punched his shutter. The horse, the other horses… lord knows, the crowd. All right there.
More practically: Bob Coglianese took one of the greatest and most meaningful sports pictures in history by going to work and doing his job.
It was a simple description, lyrically tight and sweet. The real story is almost certainly more complex – a story that is not only about the power of a picture to convey a message larger than itself and to reach into a viewer’s soul, but also about the force of a half-truth that lives across time, and the eternal riddle of who actually owns a piece of art.
Background: The photo had existed for 50 years, always with Coglianese’s authorship attached. Photo by Bob Coglianese. Sometimes a copyright symbol or NYRA reference was included, but always Coglianese’s name, and never anyone else’s. To my knowledge, it had never been publicly suggested that Coglianese did not take the picture (or that he didn’t own it, which is another issue; keep reading). I had met and spoken with Coglianese in the 1970s, and seen him in the ensuing years; he was an actual human in my experience. When the internet was born, accelerating photo sharing – and piracy – I was among those who, when the photo popped up without credit, would add Coglianese’s name to a retweet and scold the originator.
And this: In 2018, when he was in his mid-80’s, Coglianese gave an interview to the NYRA press office and that was quoted in a Daily Racing Form story at the time of Coglianese’s death. “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 and it just so happened I got that shot,” Coglianese said. The headline said Track photographer Bob Coglianese, shot famed Secretariat photo, dies at 88. Just last week, NYRA published a story in which the second sentence of the second paragraph reads: “The iconic Bob Coglianese shot of jockey Ron Turcotte peering over his left shoulder to peek at immortality.”
Nevertheless, it’s possible Coglianese did not take the picture.
And that a man named Harry Kaplan did.
Or even somebody else altogether.
On the day after my Secretariat-50 story was posted, three Tweets appeared in my Twitter feed from two people under the names Barry Kaplan and Mike Kaplan, both claiming that the famous photo had been shot not by Coglianese, but by their father, Harry Kaplan, who apparently worked with (or for, it wasn’t clear, at first) Coglianese and in general complaining that Coglianese took credit for others’ work. (On this point, again, keep reading). The poster named “Mike Kaplan,” under the handle @AirForceMike, also posted a very long comment – a screed, really — on my story on the NBCSports website.
Like most writers working in the era of social media and comment portals, I try to hew to some sort of policy: Humbly thank or at least “like” compliments, and ignore nasty criticism. (Social media in the media space overflows with meanness, cruelty and various forms of “owning”; it’s not a nice place and sharing content there is a deal with the devil). Thoughtful criticism is a grey area, because engaging can be useful, but also a time suck. The best policy is that less is more. But something about the Kaplans’ responses had the scent of possibility, if only because in my experience a lot of bodies can lead to a single photograph. I couldn’t shake the notion that even if I had not made a literal mistake (for instance if the credit on the photo is legally accurate), I may have over-simplified a truth, and embellished it for narrative value.
I texted Adam Coglianese from a trailer in the NBC compound at Churchill Downs, on the day before the Kentucky Derby, Friday May 5. We went back and forth and I asked Adam directly if his father took the picture. His response: “Bob Coglianese was the photographer.” He also said, “Harry used to work for my father. Left on bad terms.”
On May 17, I was at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to cover the Preakness. Hours before the race, I ran into Leonard Lusky on the ground floor of the Pimlico grandstand. Lusky is a central figure in the Secretariat story: He has been the publicist for Penny Chenery and Ron Turcotte (for my story, he helped me arrange interviews with both Turcotte and Kate Tweedy, Penny’s daughter), and runs the website Secretariat.com, which he helped Chenery acquire. Lusky also helped Bob Coglianese sell copies of his photo, which Turcotte has signed thousands of times, and now helps Adam Coglianese do likewise. I started to ask Lusky about the Kaplans’ claim and Lusky jumped in. “I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “There might be something to that.”
Bob Coglianese started at NYRA in 1952 at age 18, working in the photo department for his uncle, Michael Sirico; Coglianese took over the department in 1962 and held that position until his retirement in 2013, when his son ascended to the job. It’s true that many photographers worked for Bob during those 51 years, and that Harry Kaplan was one of those photographers. Born Sylvan Harry to Jacob and Jenny Kaplan of Coney Island, Brooklyn on Christmas Eve, in 1927, Harry was raised in Brooklyn, briefly served in the Army at the very end of World War II and according to stories he told family members, traveled frequently to pre-Castro Cuba in his 20s while working as a bartender at a lounge in Brooklyn. Sometime in the 1960s, he landed at the racetrack, as a bettor, owner of some average horses, and eventually as a photographer, and stayed there until approximately the mid-1980s.
Official track photography is only occasionally art, and more often a daily grind. This was more acutely true in the 1970s, when photography was more labor-intensive than today. “Being a track photographer is an assembly line,” says Skip Dickstein, who has shot racing for more than four decades, much of it for the Albany Times Union, but also for many national outlets. “It can be mind-numbing work, day after day, all year.” According to people who were present, there was a clear division of labor in the NYRA photo operation in the pre-digital age of the 70s and 80s.
First, Bob Coglianese was the boss; it was his operation. Second, Coglianese’s primary emphasis was on photographing the connections of the winning horse in each race, in the winners’ circle. This was important because he could then sell those photos to owners, trainers, friends. “The winners’ circle was the most important thing to Bob,” says Chris Scherf, NYRA media relations director from 1979-’82 after starting at NYRA in ’78. “His big thing was getting winners’ circle pictures of the owners and selling them. That was his money-maker. Bob also policed the winners’ circle, very much.”
Richard Eng, who was the NYRA photo services coordinator from 1981-85 and worked closely with both Coglianese and Kaplan, says, “The winners’ circle was an ATM for Bob. That’s where he would shoot.”
Others on Coglianese’s staff would shoot elsewhere, in particular during the feature race of the afternoon. Karen (Kivel) Rice worked for Coglianese – and with Kaplan – from 1979-’87. “Eighth race, most days I would set up a remote camera under the rail, Harry would go up on the stand.”
Steve Haskin, a longtime racing journalist who was often at NYRA tracks dating back to the late 1960s and was especially present during Secretariat’s Triple Crown, says, “Coglianese always shot races from the outside rail and then shot the winners’ circle. Harry and the other photographers would shoot from inside.” (In this description, “outside rail” means on the grandstand side; “inside” means on the infield side.)
It’s clear on the most basic level that the famous Secretariat photo was shot from the infield side of the inside rail. And Coglianese said in his 2018 interview that he took the picture from a stand in roughly that position.
Karen (Kivel) Rice: “In my time in New York, personally I never saw Bob cross the track. Not once. He would be at the outside rail, and then the winners’ circle. Now Secretariat was before my time. So I don’t know about that day.”
Richard Eng: “I was not there in 1973, but in my time at NYRA, I never saw Bob up on that stand, and honestly, I would have a very hard time envisioning Bob going up onto that stand.”
Nevertheless, It is possible that on June 9, 1973, sensing a historic moment, Coglianese walked across the track and onto the stand. Clear photographs of the finish stand on that day seem to be exceedingly rare. Last Friday (June 3) I came across a wide shot of the finish of the Belmont Stakes on the website of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. The digital image was scanned from a 3X5-inch snapshot taken at the Belmont by then-Gov. Linwood Holton from his seat above and just short of the finish line. I requested a high resolution scan of the image from the museum. This is that scan:
And this is that same photo, zoomed in on only the photo stand:
I sought analysis from two photographers: Former Sports Illustrated and Time, Inc shooter Neil Leifer, who is widely regarded as among the best photographers in history; and Simon Bruty, also a colleague of mine at SI, with more than four decades’ worth of sports photography experience at AllSport and SI, and one of the most accomplished modern-day shooters. Both have shot many major horse races. I showed both men the larger photo, the tighter version on the photo stand, the famous Secretariat photo, and one other Bob Coglianese-credited photo from that same Belmont for comparison. This one:
And I asked them to estimate, in their opinion, where the famous photo was shot from.
Leifer: “First of all, the famous picture, the black-and-white picture with the other horses in the background, that was not taken from the ground. That’s obvious. And then you have the color photo, which looks completely different (from the famous shot), and is clearly much higher, so that was probably from the top platform, which means [the famous photo] was taken from that first level. Also, in New York, the official track photographer would have had the prime position with an unimpeded view.”
Bruty: “If you look at the [famous] photograph, it’s very close to the rail. So the person shooting that image would have to been on the very inside position on the stand. And on the middle level, because from the top, you wouldn’t be able to get the other horses in the image.”
There are five people shooting from the railing of the first step on the riser. From left (furthest from the track) to right: 1) A heavyset person in dark clothing with either white hair or balding, 2) A person with bare legs, 3) A person also with either white or light grey hair or balding, in a loose-fitting orange or brown jacket and light-colored shirt, 4) A person with greying hair and a light-colored jacket (perhaps a sport coat) and 5) A person with either white hair, or a white hat, leaning out toward the railing. (There are three other people of note: Behind No. 5, a person in white pants on their knees, and further back, a person bent 90 degrees at the waist in a white shirt who does not obviously appear to be taking a picture. Lastly, there is a person with longish, flowing dark hair, halfway between the levels, either very tall or standing on something).
Based on Leifer’s and Bruty’s analysis, the most likely shooter of the famous photo is either 3, 4, or 5. (Most likely, but not certain). Leifer, Bruty, and Dickstein all said that the photo was definitely taken with a hand-held camera, and not a remote setup.
These are undated photos of Bob Coglianese:
These are undated photos of Harry Kaplan.
I showed the zoomed photo to Haskin, who knew both men in 1973. He said: “Bob is not in that picture.” I showed the photo to Rice, who knew both men from ’79-’87 and she said, “Agreed.” Eng said, “Bob C. had black hair and a stocky build. No one on either level resembles him to me.” From my perspective, knowing what Coglianese looked like just a few years later (1977-’78), in addition to knowing that at the very least he went across the racetrack infrequently, the photo creates doubt in my mind as to whether he took the picture. Is Harry Kaplan in that photo, shooting from one of the prime positions? Haskin felt that No. 4 could be Harry Kaplan. He is the right size, and in the right position. Both Mike and Barry Kaplan felt certain that No. 4 was their father, but they have a skin in the game, which is mitigating. The photo is not sharp enough to establish certainty.
On Tuesday morning, an NBC colleague found an archival photo from Getty images, which shows Secretariat just past the finish line, and the side of the photo riser, fairly sharp in the background. Person 4 is clearly visible in a sport coat.
I sent the new photo to Haskin, who looked at it and also shared with his wife, Joan Sudol Haskin, who worked at NYRA as a public relations coordinator from 1979 to 1981. “Sure looks like Harry to me, and my wife agrees it does look like him. But being from the back, you can’t be 100 percent positive. I would go 90 to 95 percent. It sure ain’t Bob.” Once again both Kaplans were certain the man in the sportcoat was their father. Again, they have an interest in seeing that. Scherf, however, said, “Can’t really tell from behind. Doubt it’s Harry and actually, from the posture, body shape and stance, it would look more like Bob. Just can’t tell.”
We found another Getty photo later Tuesday, this one at the start of the race.
Person 4 is in a more relaxed posture, and party obscured by Person 5. In this image, Person 4 seems to fairly clearly have greyish hair and light skin. It would be difficult to make the case that it’s Coglianese, who as a young man had black hair and skin that was tones darker than pale. Scherf amended his analysis: “From that angle it does not look like Bob. I can’t say that it’s Harry, though.”
A day earlier, Eng thought Person 3, in the orange and yellow, might be Kaplan, but upon seeing two more photos, said, “[Person 3] is not Harry. He has a bald spot, and Harry had a full head of hair. To me, of all the people on the second step, the one wearing the sportcoat [Person 4] is the only one who resembles Harry. He has the right build to resemble Harry, too.” The two Getty photos increased the likelihood that Kaplan was on the stand in what Leifer and Bruty described as the mostly likely position to capture the famous photo. However, neither photo eliminates the possibility that Coglianese was somewhere else on the stand.
On Monday afternoon, I contacted Adam Coglianese, sent him the photo riser picture from Virginia and explained that my reporting suggested at the very least uncertainty about who took the photo. I asked if he wanted to say anything further, or if he chose, to point out his father in the photo. His response: “I have no comment. That picture is blurry. I have no comment. It’s been known that Bob took that picture for 40 or 50 years, and now people are coming out of the woodwork, and questioning it? It’s irrational. Sure, Bob’s forte was on the outside of the racetrack, but he was 38 years old in 1973 and people are saying he never went across? Nobody ever questioned that my father took that photo, and now? This guy, Harry Kaplan, left on very bad terms with my father. So I’m going to have no comment.”
On Tuesday of this week, I asked Patrick McKenna, NYRA Vice President for Communications, if NYRA had any pictures that show the photo stand on Belmont Day, 1973. McKenna said, “There are no photos.”
Bob Coglianese is on record as saying that he physically held a camera in his hand and took the famous photo. Harry Kaplan is not, and he died of leukemia at age 82 in 2010, but others say he often claimed to have shot the photo. “He told me about it, he was proud, said it was one of his best photos,” says Rice. Peggy Kaplan, who was Harry’s fourth wife and married to him for 18 years when he died, says, “He would talk about that picture all the time. He said he was on a stepladder at the rail when he took it.” (He was on a riser, not a stepladder, which could be either a red flag, or just semantics, because the riser had a construction-site quality to it). Kaplan’s sons say they talked frequently with their father about the Secretariat photo, especially as it became more praised, but Kaplan never wanted to seek credit.
There is a good reason for this: At the time of Kaplan’s employment, and through most of Bob Coglianese’s tenure at NYRA, it was understood that any photo that left the office would bear Coglianese’s credit. This was then common in the photography world, and is not uncommon today. It’s not clear if Coglianese’s employees signed a contract that handed all rights to Coglianese, but their understanding of the arrangement was implicit. “There were times when I would go up to the press box and have lunch with Harry and a young girl that worked with them [probably Karen Kivel Rice, given the timing], and they were very resentful that Bobby would take all the credit for the photos,” says Scherf. “But they were also resigned to it. It was just human nature to complain, like, you know, ‘It sucks to be in this position.’”
On big race days, Coglianese would often bring in extra shooters; all of their photos would be credited to Coglianese. For instance, there are photos from several angles on Belmont Day, 1973, all with Bob Coglianese credits, and of course he could not have physically shot all of them. This brings into play the possibility that neither Coglianese nor Kaplan shot the iconic photo, but somebody else together. It’s challenging to fully eliminate options).
Kaplan had swallowed some hard times by then: His first wife, Ruth, had died of cancer when their sons were just nine and 10. He was grinding out a quiet living at the racetrack and did not seem to be seeking conflict. “Harry was mild-mannered, a gentleman, a nice older man,” says Rice. “He had experienced some pain in his life. He was frustrated, but he understood the situation.”
Richard Eng: “I spent a lot of time with Harry. Even if he was frustrated, he was a loyal soldier.”
It’s possible that Bob Coglianese did not physically take the famous photo, but the credit on the print – Photo by Bob Coglianese – is correct in perpetuity. Both of these things can be true. Coglianese owned the photo and the right to put his name on it.
That reality is part of a very murky corner of the photography universe, which is far too complex to explore fully here. But in short, it is not uncommon for photographers to employ – or hire – assistants to aid in covering a sprawling event. Sometimes those assistants do nothing more than push a button on a remote camera that’s been fully set up by the photographer. “Some of my pictures, the neighborhood garbage collector could have hit the button,” says Leifer. “Those are my pictures.” (Leifer also said, “Some of my most famous photos, I did not have a camera in my hands”).
Bruty says, “I’ve always believed that if I conceive the shot, and I set up the camera, and then I have somebody run a wire from the camera, and somebody presses a button on the end of that wire, that photo is my credit.”
But there is another level, in which a photographer puts a camera in the hands of his assistant, and the assistant takes the picture. Bruty says, “Personally I think that crosses the line. At that point, you’re asking them to use a skill. I know that pushing a button at the right time is a skill. That person deserves a credit for that photo. That’s what I believe.” Dickstein, the racing specialist, says, “I’m at the point where my assistant does a lot of the physical work in setting up remotes, because I can’t do it anymore, so now I give him a shared credit on those photos. Because it’s the right thing.”
Leifer, again, has a complicating thought. When I asked him if his famous photos taken by others had been remotes or actual hand-held cameras, he said, “Both.” But he said that before handing a camera to an assistant, he would “tape the focus, tape everything, leaving nothing to chance, so they can’t screw it up.” It is a complex world. It’s highly unlikely that Bob Coglianese did more than send his assistants out with orders to shoot the finish. “We knew what our job was,” says Rice. But they also knew they would not get credit unless Coglianese conferred it, and that was not the way the industry operated.
Harry Kaplan left NYRA in 1976 to work for an Ohio-based company that took school pictures. According to Barry Kaplan, the company folded. Harry went back to NYRA for at least six more years. Perhaps that was not the “bad terms” parting that Adam Coglianese referenced, because Kaplan was rehired. When Harry left again in the early-mid 80’s, (those could have been bad terms, it’s uncertain) he moved back to Ohio and eventually became the official track photographer at Beulah Park Race Track in Grove City, Ohio, several rungs on the racing ladder below NYRA. He worked there for about two decades (the exact duration is uncertain) and almost until his death on June 4, 2010.
A few months before Harry died, Mike Kaplan visited his father in Grove City and brought a copy of the famous Secretariat photo, and a Sharpie, and asked Harry to write his name on it. Bob Coglianese signed the photo several times in his life, including some valuable “triple signings” that also included Chenery’s and Turcotte’s signatures. This was the only one that Harry Kaplan signed.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.
Forte is slight 5-2 favorite for Belmont Stakes over stablemate Tapit Trice
Forte is finally getting a crack at running in a Triple Crown race. The colt, who was scratched the day of the Kentucky Derby, is the early favorite for the Belmont Stakes.
Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion, was made the slight 5-2 favorite for the grueling 1 1/2-mile race.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, the colt will break from the No. 6 post in the nine-horse field at Belmont Park. Pletcher’s other horse, Tapit Trice, is the 3-1 second choice and drew the No. 2 post.
Forte was the early Derby favorite, but was scratched by Kentucky officials the morning of the May 6 race because of a bruised right foot. He was on a vets’ list that kept him out of the Preakness, but has since come off it.
“He’s doing great, he’s training really well. He hasn’t missed any training,” said Mike Repole, co-owner of Forte. “We still think this is the best 3-year-old in the crop and he’s going to prove that.”
Mage, the Kentucky Derby winner, is skipping the Triple Crown finale after finishing third in the Preakness on May 20.
Angel of Empire is the third choice at 7-2. He finished third in the Derby and is one of three horses in the race trained by Brad Cox.
National Treasure, the Preakness winner trained by Bob Baffert, is 5-1. He drew the No. 4 post.
Arcangelo is 8-1 and will break from the No. 3 post. He is trained by Jena Antonucci, who will try to become the first woman trainer to win the Belmont.
The other four entries are listed at double-digit odds.
The Belmont field, in post position order, with jockeys and odds:
Tapit Shoes, Jose Ortiz, 20-1; Tapit Trice, Luis Saez, 3-1, Arcangelo, Javier Castellano, 8-1; National Treasure, 5-1, John Velazquez; Il Miracolo, 30-1, Marcos Meneses; Forte, 5-2, Irad Ortiz Jr.; Hit Show, 10-1, Manny Franco; Angel of Empire, Flavien Prat, 7-2; Red Route One, Joel Rosario, 15-1.