Racehorse to War Horse: How Did an American Off-Track Thoroughbred from Michigan End Up on the Set of Steven Spielberg’s Film?

War Horse Steven Spielberg American horse

Once upon a time there was a dressage horse who used to be a racehorse. But now he's a War Horse. Off-track Thoroughbreds are like that: for some, even two careers are not enough. (photo © Wendy Uzelac)

November 11 is Veterans Day. It’s a great day to think about all those who have served their country. Technically, the holiday is held on what was once known as Armistice Day, the day that World War I ended. That was the war that was the most devastating to horses who served. It’s the war you will learn a lot more about when you see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse film this winter. The Jurga Report found a little story to link together the past, the present and Hollywood in remembrance of this important, but often under-recognized holiday.

His name was Jaguar Hope. He could have been any ex-racehorse in the United States. Except he wasn’t.

He could have ended up at an auction and been crammed into a double-decker trailer headed for a Canadian slaughterhouse. Except he didn’t.

He could have broken down dramatically in the second race at some racetrack you’ve never heard of on a Wednesday afternoon in February and been euthanized on the spot. Except he didn’t.

He could have ended up in an unwanted ex-racehorse warehouse at a prison somewhere. Except he didn’t.

He could have been forgotten and turned into just another statistic in the unsustainable ratio of Thoroughbred foals to mature, usable horses in the United States.

Except none of the unfortunately normal things that happen to ex-racehorses happened to him.

Jaguar Hope and Wendy Uzelac

Each year, an undocumented number of racehorses reach the end of their usefulness on the racetrack. An equally-undocumented number of these horses find their ways to new homes and new careers as pleasure, show or sport horses. One of the lucky ones was Jaguar Hope, a handsome, well-bred son of Turkoman who began a new career as a budding dressage horse with rider/photographer Wendy Uzelac in Michigan. Their happy lives together ended when "Jag" was seriously injured in a paddock accident in 2009 and had to be euthanized. (Photo © Wendy Uzelac)

Jaguar Hope beat the odds in a game that was stacked against him. He made a decent living as a racehorse, charmed the right prospective owner, and showed promise as a dressage horse. But two careers just weren’t enough. And now, years after his death, he is transforming again as a footnote to what is sure to be a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Breyer, I’ve found a horse for you to make into a model. One that any of us would be proud to put on a shelf. This is an off-track Thoroughbred with a story and a half.

jag on the run

Jaguar Hope caught in Wendy Uzelac's camera's lens at home in his paddock in Michigan. (photo © Wendy Uzelac)

Jag, in his “second career” as a dressage prospect, belonged to Wendy Uzelac (now Wendy Uzelac Wooley),  a talented Thoroughbred photographer from Michigan I met through blogging and social media and reporting on the story of the racehorse Barbaro during his hospitalization. A beautiful black horse was in many of her photos, but I had no idea it was a non-racing Thoroughbred, and no idea it was her horse. I guess I was always too busy to read the captions.

The horse was stunning, and Wendy’s photography skills showed him off beautifully. I just assumed it was a stallion at some farm in Kentucky.

Poetry in Motion (drawing in pastel)

Jaguar Hope was captured in pastel by British artist Ali Bannister. (art © Ali Bannister)

I wasn’t the only one admiring the big black horse in Wendy’s portfolio pictures. Half a world away, talented British horse portrait artist Ali Bannister was smitten by Jag as well. She was so smitten, in fact, that she used Wendy’s photos of Jag as poses, and painted his portrait not once, but twice.

Time went by. Jag left this world in March 2009 when he was seriously injured in a tragic paddock accident. Wendy moved to Kentucky and was soon married. Ali, meanwhile, was painting up a storm for patrons like Ringo Starr.

And I was still admiring Jag’s pictures on Flickr.com without knowing he was Wendy’s riding horse. When I look now at the photos of Jag on Wendy’s Flickr account, I see comments from Ali, mentioning that she was doing his portrait, but I didn’t notice them at the time.

Ali Bannister (in front of the camera for once!)

British horse portrait artist Ali Bannister never envisioned Hollywood horses when she painted. In fact, quite the opposite was true: one of her favorite models was a completely unknown off-track American Thoroughbred from Michigan. (photo courtesy of Bridget Worth) (www.beedoubleyou.co.uk)

The world was about to get a lot smaller. One day Ali found out that a horse-specialist artist was needed on the set of Steve Spielberg’s War Horse. The film was beginning production at various locations in England. Ali’s portfolio made the rounds. She landed the job. And if you saw her portfolio, you would hire her, too.

Ali was hired not only to provide artwork that appears in a scene in the film, she was given the impressive-sounding role of “Equine Artistic Advisor”. Ali had to not only get horses into their makeup of mud and dust for various scenes, she had to make sure that it was authentic-looking mud and dust. The horses couldn’t have any clips or tack that might not have been used in that time. Ali used whole horses as canvases and finger-painted mud onto them.

How did an image of a deceased off-track American Thoroughbred from Michigan end up on the War Horse crew caps? (photo courtesy of Wendy Uzelac Wooley)

When the production team decided that the crew should all receive baseball caps, they had a problem.  They knew they needed the words “War Horse” and needed an image of a horse. So one of Ali’s portfolio pieces was put to work. You know which one.

One day, Wendy received a baseball cap in the mail. The postmark was England. Inside, she saw the image of the beautiful horse that had been hers woven into the name of the world’s most famous film director’s blockbuster film for this year.

We won’t know until the film comes out whether Jag’s image actually appears in the film or not. In the trailer, there is a scene shown where an actor leafs through some of Ali’s pencil drawings. Under the actor’s hand lies a drawing of Jag. Did this scene end up on the cutting room floor or is it in the final film? Stay tuned!

Who knows where the trail of an off-track Thoroughbred will lead…even after death? For Ali and Wendy, the run-up to the Christmas Day U.S. premier of War Horse turned into an adventure. For Jag, it’s a fitting–if unexpected–footnote to the life of a magnificent animal. For the world of social media, it’s another score: people and animals on opposite sides of the world connected, and something magical happened.

There’s something special about Thoroughbreds, and yet there aren’t enough homes for the ones who need them, deserve them and would bring magic into the lives of all who win their hearts. Just ask Wendy Uzelac Wooley, who now has another off-track Thoroughbred in her barn. Or just ask Ali Bannister, whose trained artistic eye knows a great horse when she sees one. Or just ask me, who watched this story take shape with awe and delight.

To learn more:

Visit Wendy Uzelac Wooley’s horse photography web site

Read Jag’s story on the Alex Brown Racing web site.

Read Wendy Uzelac Wooley’s farewell to Jag

Visit Ali Bannister’s web site

Watch the War Horse trailer; you’ll see some of Ali’s drawings, including one of Jag, used as props.

Much more news about War Horse and another amazing story centered on Ali Bannister’s artwork will be coming to The Jurga Report in the near future! Who knows what will happen next?

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Posted in War Horse, art, culture, dressage, entertainment, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

15 Responses to “Racehorse to War Horse: How Did an American Off-Track Thoroughbred from Michigan End Up on the Set of Steven Spielberg’s Film?”

  1. Anna says:

    I remember reading about Jag when Wendy first brought him home, and followed her posts and beautiful photography…indeed, what a fitting tribute to a lovely animal!

    • Fran Jurga says:

      Hi Anna, and here I was, all this time, thinking I was the only one admiring Jag! He really should be a Breyer model, don’t you think?

  2. Terri says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article. He was beautiful and inspirational and, through Wendy, many got to follow his story. He lives on in memory thanks to articles like this.

  3. Sallie says:

    What a wonderful story! I also followed the Jaguar Hope story as it unfolded on Wendy’s blog… this is so touching, and such a wonderful next chapter. Jag is definitely Breyer-worthy… a beautiful representative of our OTTBs!

  4. Susan Salk says:

    Great story Fran! Wendy is so talented, and what an eye she had for her beautiful horse Jag.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Fran, no one could have written this story as beautifully as you.
    I want one of those hats! :-)

  6. Otherlyn says:

    Once again…the Love of the Frens has made the difference.
    Always remembering JAGUAR HOPE. Beloved, and known to me, because he belonged to a fellow FOB (Fans of BARBARO).
    JAG and BARBARO now run together in Joy in the Peace of Thisgoodplace. They both continue to change and inspire…doing good in a legacy of Life and Love.

    <3 Your FOB Fren, O

  7. Celeste says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story along with the images. Wow. Now I am off to read all the links you have provided. I remember reading about Jaguar Hope but had no idea about this part of his story, so I’m grateful to you for bringing it to us. According to their website, Breyer has committed to do a portrait model of “Joey” who was the lead horse character in the book which has become the play and the movie, but I would love to see them also do a tribute to Jaguar Hope.

    • Fran Jurga says:

      Hi, Celeste, I’m so glad you agree with me! Does Breyer have an off-track Thoroughbred, I wonder? At the very least, they need one, and the Thoroughbred industry would get behind it, I know. And there would be no better model than Jaguar Hope!

  8. Dixie Rebel says:

    Beautiful story. Thought I would share a letter from an inmate at one of the prison programs about how the retired thoroughbred racehorses under his care are loved and making a difference in his life. Unsound and “unusable” horses have a very special place with people in need of love, companionship and a reason to turn their lives around:

    “My name is XXXX XXXXXX. I am incarcerated at Putnamville Correctional Facility in Greencastle, IN. I am working in the TRF program here and have been apart of it for 14 months. I am writing to let you know I believe this is the greatest program the DOC has to offer. It has to be one of the greatest rescue programs in the country. This program is not only saving the horses, it is saving me. This is giving me a second chance at life also. Taking care of the horses is starting to give me back some self-respect. I am learning responsibility which was totally lacking in my life. I have a sense of purpose when I wake up everyday.

    I can’t give credit to only the horses. I have a wonderful teacher. Her name is Barb Holcomb. She is teaching me as much as she can about horses, and I am eager to learn. I think she sees something in me that I didn’t know was there.

    We call all of the horses our kids, in a lot of ways they are kids. I love every single one of these horses but there are a couple that I am really attached to. There is one horse (Rusty) he was severely abused so he doesn’t trust anybody. I have been working with him every day and he is really starting to get better. He has taught me patience and gentleness, because if you don’t have either one of them you will not get anywhere close to him.

    I am not saving him, we are saving each other, and I believe that is what this program is all about. I just wanted to write all of you and let you know how great I think your program is and to let you know that you are not only saving horses, you have saved me.

    Thank you for this program.”

  9. Leslie from Newmarket, On, Canada says:

    What a great story and I agree, He should be a Breyer model and a Peter Stone model too.

  10. MARGOT says:

    Great Story! I have adopted two off the track thoroughbreds. They are kind, noble and usually grateful to be a part of your family.
    Candy (Seaship Runner) is now 24 yo and giving riding lessons to my friends children.
    Raz (Razors Edge) passed away at 21 but had the heart of a Lion. He taught me more about heart than any other horse I had ever had.
    I attempted to retire him from jumping at 18 because he had arthritis-he would get mad if there was a jump set up and I didn’t let him go over it.

  11. [...] "It’s the war you will learn a lot more about when you see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse film this winter. The Jurga Report found a little story to link together the past, the present and Hollywood in remembrance of this important, but often under-recognized holiday."  [...]

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