WE ARE perhaps called to lead exemplary lives and do special things, but not many in the world can claim to have inspired filmmakers to make documentaries about their existence. Enter Ernst Oertel! The soft-spoken South African handler is not one to boast about his achievements and has over the years let his work do all the talking. Oertel is one of the most inspiring people you will meet in the sport of racing and the UAE must thank its stars that his legend has not just existed, but thrived despite the numerous setbacks. So, when filmmaker Amanda Roxborough decided to go ahead and make ‘Leg Up’, a documentary that tells the story of former South African ‘paratrooper turned horse trainer’ Oertel, who showed great heart to bounce back from the amputation of his left leg due to post surgery complications to correct the fibula he broke after falling during a routine training accident, it was a no brainer the film’s compelling imagery would score a hit.
Released in 2017, the film about Oertel’s physical and emotional struggles and his passion for and determination to return to working with horses was shown at that year’s Equus Film Festival where it eventually won the Equestrian Inspirational Documentary (Over 60 minutes) prize. The winning has continued in his role as trainer too with Oertel having won his third UAE Trainers’ Championship prize in 2018/19, which was a brilliant year for his entire operation which has Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda as its main patron and Tadhg O’Shea as principal rider. The triumvirate finished top of their respective charts with their true crowning moment arriving on Dubai World Cup day in 2019 when AF Maher showed massive heart to win the Group 1 Kahayla Classic with one of the grittiest performances in the history of the race.
Today, with the Covid-19 pandemic a real threat to both life and racing, Oertel has a lot more to be thankful for. “You hear a lot of people thinking Covid is a joke, but I’ve had a couple of friends that died from it and it’s real,” three time UAE Champion Trainer Oertel told Al Adiyat as he propped himself against his desk resting his amputated left leg on the handle of the crutch. “We all need to be careful and understand that we just have to take precautions and do our best to stay safe. People have to understand we have only one life and we have to be careful. “I think the UAE has done a great job and compared to the world I think we’ve been the leaders. That’s why I think we are in such a good position thank God! I’m glad I’m here to be honest.” Things have improved for Oertel, whose philosophies are based on a model that has been shaped by the hard boiled realism of his ups and downs of the last few years. He admits his situation is much better than it was last season when he was administered regular injections to fight off an infection in his leg. Oertel won that battle and it has helped him focus all his energies on the current campaign in which he is presently second in the trainers’ race.
“Last season I was sick and was on a drip for about six hours a day. I wasn’t in a good state,” Oertel admits. “This year I am much better, thank God. The infection seems to have gone and I’m hopefully going to have my prosthetic leg soon. I couldn’t walk around with it last year. “I am in a much better position than last season. The infection is something that could come back but it’s a matter of monitoring it. Hopefully, it all goes to plan.” With the UAE season being abandoned on account of a rampant Covid-19 pandemic, Oertel finished as the third best trainer last term with 29 winners. He has made a reasonably good start to the new campaign with six wins under the belt already and trails leader Doug Watson by one. With a bit of luck there could easily have been more. The placings that follow the winning figures on the table say it all: nine seconds, five thirds and seven fourth place finishes from 54 dispatches. Preparations for the season have been on course. With air spaces being shut down during most of the summer on account of measures taken to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, stable staff across the UAE were forced to remain put and had to vacation in the country itself. It was no different at Desert 1 Stables where Oertel is boss. “We started in July and things have gone according to plan,”
Oertel said. “We are happy with the way it started. We’ve, probably, been a bit unlucky with many seconds and thirds, but the horses are running well. “None of my guys have had any time off because of Covid so everyone was basically here and busy getting the horses ready. Thank God the horses are in good form. Once you get them fit, they just tick along and it’s quite easy. The last two months before the season are perhaps the hardest because once they’re fit, it’s the easy part.” Oertel, 53, has a massive roster he oversees, with virtually all of the horses running in the colours of Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda, the UAE Champion Owner. Two seasons ago, Oertel, Al Nabooda and their main rider Tadhg O’Shea won all three championships available for connections, which truly underscored the efficacy of the operation. As a cherry on the cake, as already mentioned, the triumvirate even won the Group 1 Dubai Kahayla Classic on the Dubai World Cup card with a determined AF Maher delivering a gritty, against the odds success. Oertel is looking forward to another big season. “I have about 80 plus horses. It’s a good number,” he revealed. “I think there’s about 1200 Purebred Arabians in training in the country which is a lot of horses. Last year, we had 189 races which wasn’t a lot, but thank God the Emirates Racing Authority (ERA) put an extra meeting on and so it’s helping us.
“We are lucky to have big races like the Jewel Crown, for which AF Al Bairaq, who is very exciting, has received an invite. He was a top horse as a 3yo and he had problems with his feet and missed a season. Last year, he only managed to get in about three races because of his rating, which wasn’t high enough for the good races, which meant he could only run in certain races. I was very pleased with his run the other day, when he finished runner-up in the Jewel Crown prep. “We also have AF Alwajel who is another very exciting horse who will be going to Meydan along with AF Sajanjle for the Group 2 Bani Yas. “We still have AF Maher who will be aiming for the Al Maktoum Challenge races. Last year, I thought I’d be clever and keep him for the last one and then the Kahayla Classic, but just before that he bruised his foot so I had to scratch him and the Dubai World Cup card was cancelled.” While Oertel trains mainly for Al Nabooda, he does have a few horses representing the Emirates Bred Syndicate, which is an initiative by the Emirati breeder to bring more people into racing. “Khalid is great. I’ve known him for about 30 years and we’ve always had a good relationship,” Oertel said. “It’s just lucky that I have his horses and I think we’ve sort of helped each other. His operation is great. He has some of the best stallions and mares in the world producing some top horses and hopefully we can keep having winners and have more and more horses.
“He wanted to get people involved in racing so he’s put some horses in the syndicate and I’ve had a previous winner with them. “This Covid-19 is knocking us a little bit because you can’t bring a lot of people to the races, but it still keeps people interested. The syndicate is a good thing. I think it’s about ten members per horse so it’s a cheaper way to get into racing.” Oertel was all praise for the ERA’s handling of matters that ensured a timely return of racing to the UAE. “I know for a fact that Sam Shinsky (ERA steward) has been working the whole summer in organising protocols and getting things done so that we could race,” he said. “I was a bit concerned and I spoke with them and he just told me what they were doing and I knew we were in good hands. “The reduction in prize money is kind of to be expected. In England and South Africa and around the world it is terrible, but at least we are winning half decent prize money and at least if you win it pays the bills. “So, I think we are very fortunate that they have kept the show on the road because that’s the main thing and as long as they do that I think we will survive.” In reality, it isn’t just about surviving for Oertel, who always seeks more from life.