By Francis LaBelle
Len Jagoda had every intention of pursuing art as his life’s work. He knew he had talent, which was confirmed when he was awarded a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Unfortunately, this intention was not shared by the United States Army, and he was drafted into service at the height of the Vietnam War.
It took nearly 40 years and the death of his kid brother, Gary, to bring Jagoda back to his art, which highlights his love for animals, particularly horses and dogs. His artwork has now achieved international recognition. In recent years, Jagoda has generously donated prints to support the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s annual auctions. Those prints feature 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah; Tiznow, the only horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice (2000, 2001); and Tiznow’s stakes-winning daughter, My Sweet Addiction. He often donates to the TRF in honor of the horses and people who have impacted his life.
The TRF is grateful to Jagoda for sharing his passion for art and horses. Those two loves had always co-existed in Jagoda’s life. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he remembers skipping school so that he and a friend could embark on a business venture at the racetrack.
“We got up early with a story for our parents about some school activity and instead we drove out of the city to Thistledown,” he said. Their plan was to walk “hots” and use the money to wager. They earned $2 a head to walk the horses and cool them out after morning workouts.
“It was a great plan, but we didn’t get past the fourth or fifth race,” he remembered. “The good news was that, back then, gas was only 32 cents a gallon.”
Although the Army interrupted his plans for higher education, Jagoda found that art still afforded him a steady, if not lucrative, supplemental income while serving his country.
Jagoda was drafted in September, the same month he was hoping to start classes at the Cleveland Institute. “The Army pay back then was miserably low,” he said. “You couldn’t even afford to go on a date – if you were lucky enough to get a pass. For beer money, I would draw portraits of my friends’ girl friends from the photos they kept in their wallets, but I couldn’t charge too much because nobody had a lot of money.”
After basic training, Jagoda went to Fort Ord in California for advanced infantry training. “When I returned, I was approached again to sign up for Officer Candidate School,” he said. “I only asked one question, ‘What’s the pay?’” He went to OCS and was commissioned in the Combat Engineers. He served seven years with two tours in Vietnam.
Jagoda left the service as a Captain, but still did not rush back to his art. He’d married by then and felt that he needed to be more “practical” and used the GI Bill to earn a degree in business rather than art. For the next 30 years, he worked mainly in the insurance business. He later worked with acquisitions and start-ups, ran his own company and worked in London, New York and Chicago.
He was successful and well-traveled, but not necessarily happy.
“The last 15 years in the business world got to be pretty stressful,” he said. “I was seldom at home, worked long hours and my blood pressure was up. And then, my younger brother, Gary, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55. He had left the corporate world to transition into his hobby as a bird dog trainer and became a professional trainer. He often said, “If you do something that you love to do, you can’t help but be successful.” He proved that point very quickly as a breeder and trainer of Vizslas, winning field trials at the national level. He died doing what he loved, out on a field trial with one of his dogs.”
The death of his brother reminded Jagoda to pursue what he loved. But it was his wife, Dolores, who encouraged him to be what he’d always wanted to become — an artist.
This life decision was made in 2007, but the wheels had been slowly turning for a long time. Dolores had even told him, ‘Love me, love my horse’ during their courtship, and he complied by learning not only to ride, but to ride hunters and jumpers and work dressage.
The Jagodas owned and bred racehorses – the only horse they ever had that was not a Thoroughbred was Dolores’ Tennessee Walker, Beau, that she owned before they were married – but they also rescued dogs and horses, including an off-track Thoroughbred named Prince Graphic. Prince Graphic had worked as a lead pony at Thistledown. Despite a pastern that, according to Jagoda, had “calcified to the size of a softball,” Prince Graphic lived the good life on the Jagodas’ 16-acre farm in Georgia.
Because of Prince Graphic’s bad leg, a veterinarian called him “John,” which was short for “Long John Silver,” the one-legged pirate from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, “Treasure Island.”
John spent most of his time at the Jagodas’ farm with an OTTB mare named Gavelkind, who had made 90 starts as a racehorse. They were inseparable until John passed away in 1992, at the age of 31.
The more success Jagoda met in the business, however, meant less and less time for horses and art.
Some time before his brother’s death in 2005, Jagoda had befriended Bob Wehle, whose family, starting in 1878, had once owned and operated one of the nation’s oldest and largest continually operating breweries — the Genesee Brewing Company in Rochester, N.Y.
Wehle owned Elhew Kennels in Alabama and New York, where he bred champion English pointers. Wehle was an active Thoroughbred owner and breeder. At the time of his death at age 82 in 2002, Wehle owned an interest in 30 stallions and seven broodmares.
Wehle was also a staunch conservationist and, above all, an artist. He was a noted sculptor of animals, and 1995, his work was exhibited at the William Secord Gallery in New York City.
Horses and art gave Wehle and Jagoda had plenty to discuss.
“I met Bob Wehle through the horse world, and my wife and I later visited with Bob at his place in Midway (Alabama), where he kept and trained his horses during the winter months,” Jagoda said. “Bob knew of a couple of my drawings and suggested that I take up sculpture. I tinkered with sculpture, but did nothing serious until after my brother died. That’s when I made a conscious decision to go back to art.”
Jagoda took a year to refine his talent, strictly focusing on sculpture and pencil drawings. He felt that his lack of formal education in art demanded that he start from the beginning.
“Sculpture is a great way to educate yourself,” he said. “You can re-work a given piece an infinite number of times until you get it right and you learn from your mistakes.” He noticed that working in three dimensions improved his drawing skills and feels that the experience gave him a strong foundation for the artwork he does today.
Jagoda is now at the top of his game. He has won more than 30 awards, including five Best of Shows honors at national, regional and state levels. His work has been accepted to several exhibitions throughout the world.
His love for art and horses continues to grow, and now works in tandem, as evidenced by his support of the TRF.
“I think that the Thoroughbred is the epitome of the equine species for many reasons, including beauty, courage and their athletic abilities,” Jagoda said. “I also believe that as a whole, they are more intelligent than other breeds. I am not certain how I stumbled across the TRF, but I am glad that I did. The TRF is in my heart.”