Meeting Mike de Kock, I soon knew that he most certainly is a case of a horseman turned businessman, and remaining a horseman first and foremost. Strange really, when it comes to light that he was brought up in a Dutch / English family with no connections to horses. Well, probably not much stranger than the fact that one of his classmates in Johannesburg was a boy called David Ferraris. A son of a trainer. The two boys soon developed a common interest in racing. This March, some thirty years later, they both celebrated a big win on Dubai World Cup night. Same guys, same interest, but today they are men. Horsemen. With a global view.
Mike de Kock is breaking new ground as he takes nine horses to England this year. ”Not necessarily to race in Europe only”, he points out over a cup of tea in Newmarket, ”also because it is so easy to travel from here.” Yes, de Kock has a wide horizon. When he takes up ten boxes rented from Geoff Wragg’s Abington Place, his intentions are not to experiment a bit with runners at the two courses on the other side of town. One might have guessed as much. How did he select the horses, by the way?
”I took the best from my team in Dubai”, he smiles, in what must be a relaxed manner deeply rooted in his pedigree. After all, the man is due at Heathrow Airport some three and a half hours after we meet – to fly back to Dubai. Missing planes is hardly his style. Getting edgy is probably even less so.
A son of Tim de Kock and Ann Tinkler, Mike grew up next to ”the other Newmarket” - the racecourse in South Africa. With two years’ service in the army, working with horses, his interest in the animals grew. ”When I got out of the army, I got a chance to work for David Ferraris’s father, who was a champion trainer”, he recalls.
de Kock is now a family man, married to Diane and they have Matthew (15) and Kirsten (12) on the team. ”They will come to England in their school holidays”, de Kock says. ”Diane’s father, John Cawcutt, was a champion jockey”, he continues. ”She was born and bred in racing. She works for me, pre-schooling all the horses”.
He became a trainer by accident. ”The third trainer I worked for, Ricky Howard Ginsberg, died of a heart attack at 44, and I took over. Quite frankly, I did not want to become a trainer – as it wasn’t paying much. I had actually been for an inteview for a job outside racing when this all happened. I was within weeks of leaving. The owners gave me this chance when I was only 24 years old, and I had around 50 horses. It was a good start, and I was lucky enough to have the owners sticking by me. I had my first Group winner in about four months.” He still trains for some of the owners who helped launched his career in 1988. ”My client base has expanded”, he says, ”but some owners have been there since day one.”
Good for South African racing that he didn’t leave the sport. Today, good for international racing also. A leading trainer in his homeland, de Kock has an excellent record in a competitive part of the racing world. ”There are around 200 licensed trainers in South Africa”, he explains, ”and with 150 horses I have the second or third biggest string. About ten per cent of all trainers handle over 100 horses.” To the question of which big races he has won, his reply sounds not far off a comment on yesterday’s weather, ”I have won pretty much all of them”, he says and finishes his tea. Not that it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t show. There is no salesman like grin to go with the words, no politician like waving of hands. Remember, this is a horseman, and a very calm one at that. There can be little doubt that laid back men like de Kock are precisely what highly strung thoroughbreds prefer having around them to get the most out of a life at the races.
de Kock had his first runner outside South Africa in 2000. ”Horse Chestnut”, he recalls, ”he ran in the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park. He was a super horse. Super!” All of a sudden it shows on his face, Horse Chestnut was special to him, and he has never been willing to compare other horses to him. ”We wanted to go to the Dubai World Cup - it was the same year as Dubai Millennium - it would have been an interesting race. The only way out of South Africa was travelling via New York, then on to Gulfstream and go that way to Dubai. We had problems because of the African Horse Sickness and restriction on movement. You could do 60 days in quarantine in America, and get away. The plan was to go to the Donn, which is a good prep for the World Cup. Sadly, he was injured. He won the Broward though, and proved himself on dirt. Many of the Fort Woods go on dirt. He is a son of the great broodmare Fall Aspen, and she won on dirt.”
But for a third in a G3 over 1000 metres as a juvenile, Horse Chestnut would have retired unbeaten. He won nine of his ten races, including four at Group One level.
When de Kock was offered to train Horse Chestnut, he soon knew the value of the task at hand, and the success with this champion means a lot still today. Horse Chestnut was bred by the Oppenheimer family, ”I train most of their horses now and they fill nearly half my yard”, de Kock explains, ”we have quite a few owner-breeders, and I do not go that often to the sales. I do, but I never go with an open cheque book. When buying, I look for the classic type, a horse that can show speed early and win me a mile then win over a 1 ¼ miles later on. I train juveniles, and had the champion last year – called Kildonan – but I do not enjoy pushing young horses. I am not a big believer in two-year-old racing, I know that can be a bit a of commercial suicide, but it’s just not for me. I have many unraced juveniles, and the rewards are there when they get older. I often take these young horses to Durban in the winter, by the sea level, where they can enjoy a better climate, then come back to ’Jo’burg’ to race.”
His team in Johanneburg is big, he employs ”close to 70” and when US journalists called him the ”Todd Pletcher of Africa”, their readers quickly got the picture. The Yanks would have welcomed him with open arms and he would have fitted right in on the other side of the pond. Why did he choose England?
”Ah!! Look, racing here is fantastic, we have been watching it on TV at home for years. I find this a massive challenge. Let’s face it, we will be racing against some of the best horses in the world. I’d love to be a part of the big meetings, Royal Ascot, York and Goodwood. I am looking for this to be a yearly base, I am not coming just for this year. The Dubai Carnival is great, but it is also just ten meetings, and it is too hot to train there in the summer. You need to get out. If you’ve got good horses.”
And good horses he has. Based in England, South Africa’s champion trainer feels that he will be ideally positioned for international raids with them. ”Transporting horses is so easy from here”, he says, ”very professional, it’s like posting letters! So, if we want to race in France, Germany, Hong Kong or USA, we can.”
”I really have to get my head round different ways of training”, he admits, ”this is completely new, also compared to Dubai, where it’s all flat, we train and race on circular tracks, similar to South Africa”. On the subject of training, in different countries and different climates, de Kock says ”you always have to adapt to what you have, and methods are therefore different around the world. Certainly, that is also part of this that I love. You can pick up things from colleagues when training in new places, and incorporate them into your methods, you know”.
”We bought Asiatic Boy specifically for the Dubai Carnival”, de Kock explains as we switch to one of his best horses. ”We got lucky.”
Will Asiatic Boy be suited to English turf courses? ”We don’t know”, the trainer admits, ”he is a big, long striding horse, and hopefully training on undulating tracks will help him adapt. One thing in his favour is that he is a very, very sound horse.”
de Kock is now taking his training experience to new grounds, after having moved successfully from South Africa to Dubai, where he also had to adapt. ”The dirt courses are much deeper in South Africa than in Dubai”, he says, ”so therefore we work less distances at home. In Dubai, I will be working my horses nearly twice the distance compared to South Africa.” Taking a glance up the Warren Hill, de Kock comments: ”I think it is possible to train too much, and too hard here”, but quickly continues; ”Look, I am fairly scientific in my training, I work with treadmills, I work with body weights a lot, and hopefully I will be able to piece it all together - to see how working up these hills affects the horses.”
Two key factors pop up when Mike de Kock talks about the prospects of running a global operation: ”I think it can be done”, he says, ”but only with the right staff, and with understanding clients. You must have the right people on the ground, who are straight and honest with you, and feed you the right information. It’s not easy though. It is very taxing on you, on your family, and on your staff and their families. Therefore I don’t think it is something that I would do for a long time. Certainly for a few years but I doubt it will be sustainable, at some point you have to settle somewhere. It is no problem to ”winter / summer” though, for instance in Dubai and England.”
This summer will be an interesting and busy time. de Kock really will be running up those air miles, as he is shuttling between his base in Johannesburg and what will be a small, but very exclusively inhabited, satellite yard in Newmarket.
Assistant Trevor Brown, an ex-jockey who has been with de Kock for three years, will be in charge of the team from early May, and de Kock plans to come over early in July. ”Brown will have three of my grooms, one of them has been travelling with me since the first year we came to Dubai”.
He uses his own feed, supplied by Mitavite, ”an Australian feed”, he explains, ”they are very good, sending the food to me wherever I am in the world, so the horses will be staying on the same diet. But not in South Africa, as we can’t get it there – it’s just too expensive. But the diet I use is similar. I weigh my horses at least three times a week, that tells me a lot about each individual. When I am going for a big race I weigh every day, at exactly the same time of the day. It is very important, the weight ”talks to me”.
Different climates has always been a subject in international racing and ”horses do not mind the cold”, de Kock says, ”though some horses peak in the summer, some in the winter. I do not know what it is, maybe even genetic, but I have seen it many times. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that the thoroughbred is better at four than he is at three. When the horse is three or four, he is still growing, and can have little niggling problems. When he is five and six, his skeleton has settled down, there are no more pains, therefore he tries that little harder.”
If a horse is more likely to be at his best at four, should the classics be for that generation?
”Absolutely! Look, if you have a lightly raced, sound four-year-old, you can clean up. I wish we did everything a year later. I suppose financially it is not easy. But; on the flip side, how many horses are we losing because we have been pushing them at two? So maybe the financial implications will work in your favour if the horses are given more of a chance to mature, then able to race later. What is wrong with having a five or six-year-old still running?”
South African horses are quite tough, according the de Kock; ”they are hardy, in wintertime in Johannesburg the ground is quite firm. We are therefore breeding a horse that can race quite often. A lot of horses are also imported, from Australia, Brazil and Argentina.”
Connection with the rest of the world has not always been easy, however. The South African horse sickness issue has been suffereing from a ”lack of understanding”, de Kock says, ”the risk is actually very low, and it is not a contagious disease. We vaccinate and the risk for thoroughbreds is low compared to farm animals living 24 hours outdoors. In fact, little things like not taking the horses out to graze early in the morning or in the evening, when there is a dew, reduces the risks a lot. That is the time of the day they are likely to be bitten. South Africa is on top of this, as you know there will be a complete closedown if horses are affected, with no movement at all. It has been a problem for hundreds of years and not really understood. On this matter, I feel the rest of the world needs to be a little more sympathetic.”
That last word probably sums up the man, I decide as our talk comes to an end. Minutes later he is heading towards Heathrow and ”that dreaded M25”, another track he needs to adapt to this summer. I am sure he will.
Mike de Kock, who once gave quite a self-describing answer when tackling this question on a Personality of The Week Q&A:
Where is your ideal holiday location?
”I can relax anywhere when I take a break from the stable and phones”, de Kock answered.
I am sure it’s true.