Riding the crest of the wave of the UAE trainer’s log in 2014, Ernst Oertel lost his leg and shortly afterwards, his job as trainer to the president, but in a rare display of courage, resilience and determination, he has hauled himself literally and figuratively back into the saddle. If you think that sounds like a movie script, you’re not alone as Amanda Roxborough is currently completing a film about his life.
It is a foible of the racing industry that out of sight is frequently out of mind. The joy of the internet and modern technology means it is relatively easy to track down and chat to just about anybody anywhere in the world, something we can take for granted. Having made contact with Ernst via Facebook and arranged a time to chat, I offered a choice of Whatsapp, Facetime, Skype, etc. “Let me call you. Emirates has blocked Whatsapp,” he messaged. When we finally got through by old fashioned phone, I exclaimed about the difficulty in communications. “Pain in the arse,” he agreed equitably and I decided I liked him enormously.
Born and bred in South Africa, Ernst started his horse career at Barbara Sanne’s Oldlands Stud. “She suggested I go to England and do a stud management course. I ended up working for Lester Piggott,” he adds, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. Asked what it was like to work for one of the legends of our time, Ernst answers, “Annoying actually. I’d only been there a couple of months when he was arrested.” Deciding to stay in the UK, alongside his then girlfriend, Sarah Kelleway, Ernst started up Arabian racing in England. “We were the champion trainers ten times in a span of 15 years. When Sarah and I broke up, I started training Thoroughbreds and purchased a yard in Newmarket.”
Returning to South Africa to look after his father, Ernst started training in Summerveld, but finding it a little insular, he later transferred to the Vaal. “Things were progressing when I got a call to ask whether I’d train for the president of Abu Dhabi. Obviously I took the job.” Ernst set up in Al Asayl, winning the trainer’s title in his second season and becoming the first Abu Dhabi-based trainer to win the championship. He collected his second successive title in March 2014, but unbeknown to him was already several months into what would turn into a life changing event.
Ernst likes to ride work and in August 2013, broke his left tibia and fibula aboard Skoop, his 2013 Arabian Triple Crown Round 3 winner. “We were walking back from the gallops and the horse spun round. I heard a click and thought s**t. I tried to put weight in my leg and fell off, so I thought I must have been kicked.” They operated and pinned the leg. “The doctor said it was a pretty bad fracture and he didn’t think I would be able to walk properly again, but I started working and it seemed to heal OK. There was a bit of pain, but the doctor said that was to be expected, so I thought things were fine. When they took the plate out in May 2014, they never did a swab or they would have picked up that there was an infection and might have saved the leg,” he says matter-of-factly. “I flew to the UK two days later to attend the World Arabian Horseracing Conference. The leg was getting painful and hot and one evening it burst open.”
Horse people are practical by nature, but Ernst takes it to another level. Asked what happened next, he says, “I asked the hotel concierge for the address of a hospital and went in the next day.”
A series of 8 operations followed. “After every op they said it looked clean, everything looks good and they think it will be fine, but the infection would not go away. Eventually they made a hole in the bone and it was rotten. I had some kind of superbug and the infection wasn’t responding to the antibiotics.” The infection had taken its toll and Ernst’s weight dropped to 50kgs. “I didn’t even realise it with all the morphine and so on. People who came to visit thought I was going to die. I didn’t feel it, I just felt tired,” he says, sounding bemused.
“They came in and said we have to amputate. I got a second opinion of course, but everyone said there was no chance. Normally they amputate below the knee which makes it a lot easier, but in my case they had to amputate much higher up to make sure there was no infection and that the flesh was clean.”
“Everyone says how bad the NHS is, but for me it was great. All the nurses were South African, so I felt quite at home,” he jokes. Was he very upset? “You can’t really. I just felt it’s happened and you’ve got to move on. I’ve got a great prosthetic, probably one of the best for walking on, but it is a pain in the *** to put on in the morning and in the middle of the night you’ve got to hop around,” he admits. “But besides that, you get used to it. The great thing is that I feel as though my leg is still there. It’s actually nice, you can still feel your toes!”
Despite Ernst’s set-back, he recovered incredibly quickly and was back in Dubai by August. “I love being around the horses, so my main goal was getting back to see them and get on with training.”
However, there was more to come. In the new season, he suddenly received a spate of positives for ibuprofen in his horses and was handed a 4 month ban. Ernst protested the charges strongly, going so far as to undergo a lie detector test to prove that he had not doped his horses. “The ERA accepted the fact that I hadn’t administered the medication, but as the person responsible for the horses, I was still guilty of running horses with a banned substance. Unfortunately that’s the rule and there’s not a lot you can do.”
As it would not do for the President’s horses to be trained by someone with a medication positive, he was relieved of his duties, but undeterred, Ernst set up his own stable. “I’ve been coming to Dubai for 20 years and know a lot of people here. I bumped into an old friend who is a major player and he suggested we set up a yard together. In my first year, we had 13 winners and last year he was champion owner. It’s the first time a local owner has been champion owner in the UAE, so that was an achievement,” he says in his matter-of-fact manner. “When I took over, he had 5 winners and last year he had 34. I’ve now got 96 horses in training, so it’s going well.”
Back In The Saddle
On top of that, Ernst is back in the saddle and back to riding his string out on gallops. “It’s really a matter that I enjoy it and I do what I enjoy in my life. For me, it’s boring training horses if you just stand and watch horses cantering by. It’s nicer to ride them and when you ride a good horse, you can feel it and it gives you such a rush. You can also feel what’s wrong and I think it gives you a bit of an edge. I love training horses and I love racing them, so that’s what I do.”
“The first time I was back on a horse was probably six months after the operation. It had been a really **** time. I’d lost my leg and when I went back in August, I got the ban, which ran till April and then I lost my job. I’d been to another conference and when I got back, a friend invited me to ride. We fitted a make-shift saddle and I rode out and just progressed from there. I adapted and made a better contraption and now it’s pretty good. And to be honest, it doesn’t feel too bad. I feel pretty safe. I can ride, I can jump on if I have to with one leg, it’s not the end of the world. If you’d asked me when I had two legs, I’d have thought losing one would be the end of the world, but it’s nothing. It hasn’t stopped me living and doing what I love and it’s all going well. I’ve got a running leg now as well and am just trying to live a normal life.”
It is Ernst’s relentless never-say-die attitude that has inspired Amanda Roxborough to make a film about his life. Amanda deserves a film all to herself, having been a jockey and a trainer in her own right, before a starting stall accident made her trade her boots for production work. Amanda launched Kylar Productions in 2006 and recently won an award for her first documentary.
The pair met at the Darley Awards in California in 2014 and kept in touch via social media. Having won a People’s Choice award for her first half hour documentary, she was looking for a new project and Ernst’s story popped into her head. “I’d seen a pic of him on Facebook riding out in an exercise saddle and thought ‘unbelievable’. We connected via Facebook and I said I wanted to do a documentary. He said yes and once I got his blessing in true me fashion, I was out of the gates and running. That’s how life is for me!” They got funding for the project primarily thanks to Cavallas Equine Supplies in Abu Dhabi, have shot all the footage and Amanda is currently in the process of final edits. The film, titled ‘Leg Up’ will be entered for the Equus Festival in November as well as the Sundance Festival next year.
For a peek at what’s in store, watch the trailer below:-
Amanda has a blonde ponytail, a broad smile and an irrepressible energy. Why this particular project? “When you are a professional athlete, your job is your life, it’s who you are. When that gets taken away, there isn’t a great percentage that kick on, so I was really passionate about the message this can stamp for the greater good. The bond between horse and human has a powerful and healing energy and it’s a journey that we’re blessed to have. My vision is to empower others that have had a major life shift and help move them to their greatest life potential.”
You can follow developments or get involved via the Kylar Productions website or the Leg Up Facebook page. And Ernst is on Facebook too.