By Perry Lefko
Some filmmakers wait their entire lives to find the ultimate story. For former jockey/trainer Amanda Roxborough, it has happened rather quickly. Roxborough, who retired from horse racing after 26 years in 2004, began a career in television broadcasting that turned into video and film production and is currently riding the crest of an award-winning documentary, Leg Up.
The film relates the inspirational story of United Arab Emirates champion Arabian trainer Ernst Oertel, who had to overcome a life-threatening disease that required the amputation of a leg–all the while rebuilding his stable in the wake of two costly positive medication tests. The film won the award for “Equestrian Inspirational Documentary–Over 60 Minutes” at the 2017 Equus Film Festival in New York in November.
Now the film is about to become available on iTunes and Amazon in early February.
Roxborough has submitted the film for consideration to be entered in the Atlanta Film Festival, which is an Academy Award-qualifying film festival. She is also planning to premier the film sometime in 2018 in the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m always trying to come up with something that matters–that’s really important to me,” she said. “There has to be a big message. I just think inspirational stuff really hits me. The universe has guided me and I’m happy to follow.”
Roxborough was born in England and raised in Canada, where she rode on the Ontario circuit and then became a trainer. Her career ultimately ended in Florida following a training accident, paving the way for her shift to the world of film. After a stint working production with TVG when her racing career ended, she took a course in broadcast production and started her company, Kylar Productions, which is a combination of her son Kyle’s name and her monogram. What began as commercial work for horse racing clients and then evolved into corporate work led her to a path of doing a documentary.
“I’ve always been a positive, grateful, thankful person,” she said. “I believe in the goodness of the universe. Positive energy creates more energy. I’ve been saying that since I was 12. There’s been a lot of humps and bumps. I had to change lanes after I broke my neck in 2004 and my relationship [with another trainer] went sour. I wasn’t 100% ready to finish with horses on the backside at the time. But I just decided to power through.”
Roxborough met Oertel in California at the 2014 Darley Awards, which is the Arabian Racing Cup version of the Eclipse Awards, where she won a media award for Best TV Presenter. The award-winning footage included coverage of Arabian races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. The two crossed paths again at the World Arabian Horse Racing Conference six weeks later in England, where both were speaking on panels.
During his panel discussion, Oertel’s leg began to bother him, prompting a visit to the local hospital. Two weeks before, he had a titanium plate removed from the leg, which he shattered in a training mishap a year earlier. Doctors discovered a staph infection, which set in following the removal of the plate, and told Oertel the leg might have to be amputated. After eight surgeries, during which time Oertel’s weight dropped precipitously, the decision was made to amputate the leg.
Oertel’s problems only increased from there. Two of his horses tested positive for ibuprofen, and even though Oertel took a lie-detector exam that proved his innocence, he was handed a four-month suspension. He lost his job working for the President of the UAE and his powerful stable.
Oertel was forced to restart his career from scratch, but found support from an UAE National, Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda, a breeder/owner who had been in the sport for some 20 years.
In December 2016, Roxborough became aware through Facebook that Oertel was riding horses with a makeshift stirrup he had developed because he wanted to ride horses again. Roxborough contacted Oertel and broached the idea of doing a documentary film– one that would be inspiring not only to the Arabian horse racing community, but also as a story about an athlete overcoming a traumatic accident.
After putting together a production schedule and a budget, she received funding from Cavalos Equine Care & Supplies and a private backer who believed in the story.
“A lot of athletes don’t always come back–they don’t always prevail, they don’t always go on to live a shining life–because it destroys your encompassing world,” she said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve known several people that have been paralyzed from galloping or riding. It’s pretty devastating what has happened to them. But Ernst was like a shining star and I thought his story was inspirational.
“I could relate to it just as a horse person. We’ve all seen what’s happened to jockeys, even if they don’t have an injury. There’s so many broken souls out there. You don’t even need to be horse people to watch and admire and be inspired by the film. Everybody always says, ‘you think you’re having a bad day, someone else is having it worse.’ This guy does it with such dignity and selflessness. He just gets on with it. Even if it’s bothering him, he just always gets up. I’m like that. I think we resonated that way.”
Oertel finished the season in the top five among trainers and Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda won the UAE Owner of the Year–the first time for a non-member of the royal family.
“It was very serendipitous, I thought, that it all happened,” Roxborough said. “I had a really good feeling about it all. I know he’s an excellent trainer, and in any kind of storytelling there’s got to be drama. I could see his comeback to become among the top was maybe not quite attainable, but he’s an empowered man and a driven person about horses and he’s a very good trainer. It all just came together really, really well.”
She said she knew the project would be well received at the Equus Film Festival as a starting spot to get extra credibility for the film. In 2016, she won an Equus Award in the category of “Peoples’ Choice, Short Documentary,” for the film Arabian Horse Racing, From the Desert Sands to Racecourses Around the World.
The trailer for Leg Up has received almost 70,000 views from all over the world.
“I guess I’m not a pattern person or a label person,” Roxborough said. “I’m just more of a go make it happen person…I was happy with positions I had, but I always knew I wanted to do this. It makes me happy to just go for it. That’s kind of who I am. I keep trying to learn as I go along and enjoy the ride and be thankful.”