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

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.

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)

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 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, 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.

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.

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.


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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