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The importance of being Ernst

Author: Duane Fonseca


If there’s one thing the trainer Ernst Oertel loves most it is a challenge. And having overcome one of the biggest tests of his life just about anything and everything thrown at him now perhaps feels like a piece of cake. While most would have literally buckled at the knees if their legs fell off, South African Oertel challenged himself to rise up and get back in the saddle. There are about a million proverbs floating in cyberspace about rising up to challenges and Oertel’s life just seems like a living rendition to nearly each and every maxim. His story is the stuff of movies and that’s not just for saying. In fact, the most heart rending phase of his life inspired documentary filmmaker Amanda Roxborough to turn the Oertel tale into an award winning film.

‘Leg Up’ won the ‘Equestrian Inspirational Documentary (Over 60 minutes)’ prize at this year’s Equus Film Festival in November, and is scheduled to be entered in next year’s Sundance Film Festival according to sources online. That would be big. However, for now Oertel is happy that his horses are performing in the grand amphitheatre that is the Emirates racing season. “So far we are going well and we are happy with the fact we are consistent. It’s just the way it is for us and we’d like to start and finish the same way. We have winners every week and I am happy with the way things are going.

Things are good,” says the 51yo in a tone that is strictly ‘matter of factly’ and shaped by the hard boiled realism of the ups and downs witnessed during the last few years spent in the UAE. “I think this season the babies are maybe a little more backward and the competition is getting tougher year after year. But I think I have the same amount of winners as I had at this stage last season. You want to keep your winning average to about 12- 15% so if I can keep it at that it would be good for me.” Conversely, there was a time three years back when he knew that something had gone awfully wrong inside him.

A former paratrooper for the South African army, Oertel’s military training has helped him plan and prepare meticulously. As the saying pertinent to those jumping out of an airplane goes, so he does and ‘packs his own chute’. Oertel had always adopted a handsnon approach to his job and would ride out to watch his horses during their morning gallops. He never wanted to be the handler that sat back happy as his staff did the job for him. That’s perhaps why he steeled himself quickly and was back on the job in a matter of weeks following rehabilitation from the surgery, which followed the successful defence of his UAE Champion Trainers’ title at the end of the 2013/14 season.

While the end of the season brought much joy, Oertel had to contend and go through the motions with a leg that silently kept on deteriorating from the inside. Speaking of the ill-fated day in August 2013, in an earlier interview when he fell of his Purebred Arabian charge Skoop, Oertel said: “We were walking back from the gallops and the horse spun around. I heard a click and I tried to put weight on my leg and fell off, so I thought I must have been kicked.” It was clearly worse. He adds: “The doctor said it was a pretty bad fracture and he didn’t think I would be able to walk properly again. I started working and it appeared to heal. 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. I flew to the UK two days after the plate was removed to attend the World Arabian Horse Racing Conference and the leg was getting painful and hot and one evening it burst open.” A series of operations followed and the infected parts of his leg were cleaned but to no avail. The decision to amputate was taken next. “I had a second opinion, 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,” he said.

Oertel’s rise up the ranks had been impressive and almost immediate. In his first UAE season in 2011/12 and training for Al Asayl, Oertel picked up 16 winners. He was crowned Champion UAE Handler for the first time in his second year here after winning 34 races and was able to successfully defend the trainers’ title in the 2013/14 season, registering 46 winners in the process, including Shayel Aldhabi’s victory in the Group 1 National Day Cup, now the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Jewel Crown, and Nymphea Du Paon’s success in the Group 3 Arabian Triple Crown Round 3. The latter was a race he had won the season before with Skoop, from whose back he would later fall and sustain the fracture that would lead to a series of unfortunate events and culminate in the amputation of his leg but not his ambition.

Oertel was back to training weeks after having gotten used to his new prosthetic appendage, but to make matters worse was handed a four month ban by the Emirates Racing Authority (ERA) after his horses returned positive urine tests for banned substances. The South African decided to contest the charges, and even underwent a lie detector test to prove his innocence. “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,” he told sportingpost. in an interview. Oertel is his own man.

In a sport where trades normally pass down generations, Oertel had none in his family to inherit the necessary genes from. Still the desire to work with horses and train them is something that lay inherent in his DNA. “I’ve always loved horses and loved working with them, so it’s something that I wanted to do and I’ve been training for about 30 years now,” said Oertel, who was advised to move to the UK following early work on a stud farm in South Africa. “I went there and started working for Lester Piggott and his wife and it just went on from there. I started with Purebred Arabians and then Thoroughbreds in the UK and then went back to work in South Africa where I had an offer to come work at Al Asayl.

After that [he was laid off following the ban] I started working with Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda and this is the third year that I have been working with him. I do train for other owners as well, but most of my horses belong to Khalid,” said Oertel, whose 30 winners last season helped Al Nabooda finish as Champion Owner. “I get a lot of support from the owners but it’s hard to get good stables here and I’m lucky I’m at Meydan. It’s difficult to get good stabling but the facilities I have are brilliant. “Ideally it would be nice if Khalid was to build his own stables or if they can have a facility like the Endurance Village and put a big track around it so that people can build their own stables there.

That could be a good idea.” Oertel spends most of his time training Purebred Arabians and revealed he has just two Thoroughbreds under him in training. He doesn’t like to differentiate between the two breeds and claims to “treat them all the same”. “They’re all nice. It’s like people you get some who can run fast some who cannot,” he says. “They’re the same. “Arabians are more difficult to train but Thoroughbreds are machines. You have to be more patient with Arabians, but we just try and get the horses to run the best they can and make sure they’re alright.” That might not sound very challenging, but Oertel certainly thinks differently. “We are a stable with a lot of ambition and our challenge right now is to give the local horses the edge. We want to make sure they can compete against the French horses: that’s our aim. That is a very challenging job ,” he explains. As one who makes his own luck, Oertel is more than willing to make his dreams come true. “I’ve had a lot of luck and as long as I stay lucky I’ll be alright,” he said.

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22 Mar 2018
Issue Number: Issue 641
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