A Great Who Captured the Greats: Remembering Bob Coglianese

NYRA, Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course, Bob Coglianese, Adam Coglianese
Photographer Bob Coglianese was a fixture at New York racetracks from the time he started as an assistant to his uncle Mike Sirico in 1952 through his retirement in 2013. (Coglianese photos)

Fans standing at the rail will see a myriad of people working around the racing ovals before them. Outriders on their mounts will stand by the rail as they wait for the field for the next race. Assistant starters will mill around the starting gate as the field comes on to the track for their warmups. As those professionals work, another group takes up position at certain vantage points around the racetrack. Laden with a camera or two and maybe a sizable telephoto lens as well, these pros find the right spot, their focus on this all-important task: getting the right shot.

Among the greats to capture the sport with his camera was the late Bob Coglianese, longtime New York racing photographer and chronicler of many of the 20th Century’s iconic moments. From Kelso to Secretariat to “The Savage,” Coglianese spent more than five decades getting the shots that made many a memory for generations of fans.

A Family Legacy

Bob Coglianese at work. (Coglianese photos)

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bob Coglianese lost his father as a young man, his uncle Mike Sirico stepping in as his mentor in those early years. Sports always held a fascination for him, growing up a Dodgers fan, but the young Coglianese also spent days at the racetrack with Sirico, who was the track photographer for New York area tracks like Belmont and Aqueduct. After his high school days were done, he traded books for cameras, starting his career as his uncle’s assistant in 1952.

Sirico had learned from the best, working under Charles Christian Cook, preeminent turf photographer of the early 20th Century, so Coglianese was in the right place to do the same.

“My great uncle really was tough teaching my father,” his son Adam remembered. “So, my father’s work ethic derived from his uncle’s. He learned everything from him.”

Sirico became the official track photographer in 1955, a role that Coglianese took over in 1962. About the same time, he also set up an on-track location to sell black-and-white prints, the start of the sales side of their business, one that Adam continues to this day. Ten years later, Coglianese took over as the New York Racing Association’s official photographer, shooting each day’s races, developing images, and sharing them with the NYRA press offices for their public relations and for wire services as well.

Adam learned the craft from his father through his many summers at the racetrack but did not become a part of his team until 1992. He took over the business of selling photos via their Coglianese Photos website and shooting for NYRA when his father retired in 2013. In his later years, the elder Coglianese was content to sell photographs at the family’s booth during Saratoga summers.  

From Film to Digital

When Bob Coglianese started his career, the world of digital photography was decades away. He shot on film, but not the small 35-millimeter rolls that most candid photographers of a certain age would be familiar with. Rather, he started his career shooting on 4x5-inch sheets, with several collected in a film holder, which he would change throughout the day. He shot in black and white rather than color as a matter of convenience; black and white photos took fewer chemicals and less time to develop in a dark room.

Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes win. (Coglianese Photo/BloodHorse Library)

The limitations of shooting on that kind of film also meant that Coglianese often had only one or two shots per race, sometimes shot from the rail or from a photo stand near the finish line. So those iconic shots of Ron Turcotte on Secretariat looking back at the field far behind and Great Prospector’s attempt to bite Golden Derby were captured thanks to the practiced eye and impeccable timing of an experienced artisan well versed in his craft.

In the 1970s, Coglianese started shooting on 35mm film, still shooting mostly in black and white because of the expediency. After they developed the image, the photo would be mounted on a drum scanner connected to the Associated Press in Manhattan. From there, the images would go out to the daily newspapers, like New York’s Daily News, which would often publish at least one photo of the previous day’s races. This process had to go quickly as the NYRA press office and other writers has their articles written soon after the feature race was official.

A day at the races for Coglianese started before dawn, when the photographer would arrive to set up for the afternoon’s races. He would preload cartridges with film and develop and print photographs, tasks that were more time-consuming than today’s digital technology. They made the switch to digital photography in 2001, which enabled them to take more shots in a short time but even then, Coglianese emphasized the care and craft of a practiced eye behind the lens.

“My father told me from day one, the hand is quicker than the eye, which means you don’t hold your finger down on the button,” Adam remembered. “Look through the lens and see what you’re getting. And when you push the button, that’s what you’re going to get.”

The switch to digital photography did allow the Coglianeses to print and distribute photographs to winning owners and trainers and other customers more quickly. On a given day at the races, they can have a winner’s circle photo ready within 20 minutes. “It blew him away that you were able to have the picture up on a computer right away and make a composite quickly, where he would have taken hours to develop the film and make the prints and then put the collage together,” Adam shared. “He thought the innovation was incredible.”

An Artist Remembered

Adam and Bob Coglianese (Coglianese photos)

In his five decades, Coglianese saw Triple Crown winners and greats like Kelso and Dr. Fager. He saw Native Dancer break his maiden and caught Secretariat’s grand stride in a workout, the inspiration for the statue of the ninth Triple Crown winner that stands in Belmont Park’s paddock. This legendary photographer saw the craft evolve from dark rooms and cartridges to digital and print on demand.

When Bob Coglianese passed away in December 2022, he left behind a lifetime of memories on film and in the hearts of those who knew him. His son Adam carries on with the family business, selling photos while working for both NYRA and Gulfstream Park. He also works to preserve the images his father captured over his lifetime shooting racing 300 days a year, images that encapsulated big days and small ones. But the job of preservation is not the same without the man who built it all.

“He would remember what image he took and more or less give me the time period where I could find it,” Adam remembered. “There were certain times, if I showed him a negative, if I showed him a picture of Forego, he would be able to tell me what race it was from. He had that photographic memory.”

Bob Coglianese was a great who captured the greats and left us all with these snapshots of what once was still accessible even decades later.

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