Diane’s sterling work

IN this enjoyable read, NICCI GARNER of Racing Express gets behind the scenes in Mike de Kock’s engine room, where wife Diane prepares the stable’s young horses for their hard and competitive careers on the racetrack.

”A wife is essential to great longevity; she is the receptacle of half a man’s cares, and two-thirds of his ill-humour’’ – quotation from Charles Read, English novelist and dramatist. 

THAT poignant song ”Wind Beneath My Wings’’ (Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar) could have been written for Diane de Kock, the wife who held it all together while her husband travelled the world to become famous in international racing circles.

Mike de Kock’s triumphs and disappointments are well chronicled. Through the jet-setting ride that has been his life for the last decade, Diane has been at his side for the most important occasions but on the whole many miles away, fiercely and routinely holding to a hectic schedule that has entailed caring for their children, Mathew (who last year became assistant trainer to his father) and Kirsten, who loves to dance and wants to become a journalist, training the stable’s young horses and maintaining a healthy social life. 

She also finds time for philanthropic endeavours and recently organised a ”Know Your Status’’ drive at Randjesfontein. Nearly half the workforce at the training centre was tested for HIV-Aids because of her initiative.

And the pretty blonde has thrived on the lifestyle. 

After all, though being a mother comes naturally to her, horses are her obsession; have been since she was a toddler watching her father, Johnny Cawcutt, rip away from the opposition in Cape races. 

”My dad was champion jockey in Cape Town for 16 years (national champion twice). He didn’t really want me or my three sisters to ride, but my younger sister Mechele and I persuaded him to let us learn. 

”We’d go every morning to ride work for my Uncle Lesley (Cawcutt) and every Saturday would go with Dad to watch the races at Kenilworth. Of course, we weren’t allowed into the course, so we’d watch from afar – from the car park at the end of the straight at Kenilworth.’’ 

Diane and the filly, Plush

Johnny Cawcutt became a trainer when he retired, but by then Diane was riding work for Terrance Millard alongside the trainer’s daughter Carol (Woodruff). ”We had lots of fun riding on the beach at Bloubosrand and even competed in the ladies’ races,’’ she remembers. 

Did she want to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a jockey? ”It wasn’t possible in those days. There were no women jockeys here, although Carol did ride overseas for a while.’’

Diane’s two winners – Park Avenue and Critique, both for James Goodman – were hugely exciting and came after she relocated to Johannesburg in 1985 ”just for a change’’. 

”I never wanted to be a trainer,’’ she said. ”I just wanted to work with horses.’’ 

She’d got a job as Goodman’s assistant trainer-cum-work rider. He was one of only four trainers based at Randjesfontein at the time. ”He had a great string in those days and was really good to me.’’ 

She and Mike, who was working for another “Randjes’’ trainer Robbie Sage before moving on to Ricky Ginsberg, soon started dating. 

Ginsberg died unexpectedly in 1988 and Mike ”inherited’’ the string from his boss. The following year Diane moved to work for him at Turffontein and three years later they got married. 

”I carried on working for Mike until we had the kids. Then I eased off. We moved on to Mary Slack’s White Hills Farm when Mathew and Kirsten got a bit older and I started taking over the pre-training. It wasn’t planned, I just fell into it.’’ 

Though they were only at White Hills for just over three years, Diane connected spiritually, emotionally and practically with the farm – more than any other place she has ever lived. It’s the place where she prepared horses like Victory Moon, physically and mentally, for their exertions at the highest level and where she lay next to and held Horse Chestnut’s full brother, Yellowwood, as he died after a freak accident. 

”White Hills had a beautiful track and lovely paddocks. It was a place where horses could just go to and chill, very relaxed. I’ve always joked that I got Victory Moon ready to win that first race in Dubai because both the White Hills track and Jebel Ali are uphill.’’ 

Zirconeum, Musir and Raihana are all graduates of her pre-training and she celebrates every one of their successes nearly as emotionally as those of her children. She says: ”I think, that’s your baby, running in Dubai! And I’m so proud of them when they win.

”Perhaps my most special `baby’ was Zirconeum. She was very hot, and naughty. She could have been a real cow. But my best rider, Elliot (Maqelena) – he has the most beautiful hands on a horse – got her right by just sitting calmly on her. She eventually got the message that she didn’t have to jog everywhere. And sometimes I’d lead her home from the track. I tried everything and she eventually came right.’’ 

She still misses White Hills, though. ”I think the sales are especially stressful for horses and nowadays they’re coming back to Randjesfontein, straight into a racing environment. I don’t believe that it’s good for them so early in their careers, but I’ve made it work. Mike’s had more two-year-old runners, and winners, this season than ever before. He’s not buying a more precocious kind of horse. I think we’re doing it right early in their training, building bone density and getting them stronger.’’ 

Diane, who gets to the stables at 6am every morning, wasn’t about to reveal all her secrets, but did admit that she had adjusted her pre-training methods over the years.

 ”It’s good grounding that’s worked the oracle,’’ she says. “We earn their trust and they know we won’t put them into bad situations, so they will walk on a float, or load into a starting stall. 

”I have a passion and I connect with horses. But I also have a wonderful staff and we’ve created a calming environment for our horses. Vivian, an absolute professional, and I are on top of it all the time, making sure everything runs smoothly because if we’re relaxed and calm, so is our staff and it’s passed on to the horses.

 ”I always tell my grooms (she employs 18), use your voice – talk to them because they listen. And don’t shout unless the horse is in the wrong. (Horse psychiatrist) Patrick Kaye taught his horse 300 words. So they’re not stupid!’’

Of course, the horses often give them frights. ”Mike says horses can be suicidal – and he’s right. When they run, they just run and will go through fences or anything in their way.’’

What does she do with the flighty, uptight horses? ”I try and fix it. I’ve found the treadmill is a good tool to get them focused and co-operative. But I’ll even look at horse psychiatry, if I think it’s necessary!’’ 

They give her many laughs, as well, though. ”One of my new yearlings saw our `white’ horse Happy Valley at the wash-bay and really got spooked. She just wouldn’t go past him. I wonder what she thought he was. Caspar?’’

Diane uses every tool at her disposal. Apart from the treadmill, she also makes good use of the hot-walker and she’s in the process of building more paddocks so her horses can ”chill’’ in a more natural environment than a stable. 

The initial stages of pre-training for the 35 yearlings in her barn (another 14 are waiting to come in) is to lunge them with no saddle. ”Horse Whisperers’’ all over the world use lunging to enhance their connection with the horse, as well as encouraging discipline and manners. After two weeks, they are fitted with a saddle to get them used to bearing weight. A week later, a rider is thrown up and they trot for a week in the paddock. 

”Once we get them going forward confidently and they’re bored with paddock life, I start taking them to track in the afternoons when it’s nice and quiet. We take them to the trotting track and hack there for about a month, and then they start going to the track for their full pre-training.’’ 

She says that yearlings nowadays are more ready for their new lives than ever before, a compliment to the breeders who have handled them extensively and got them used to bridles, hot-walkers and lunging. 

She throws her heart into getting ”her babies’’ ready to face their futures, then they’re gone; to the main yard at Randjes, ”which is not so bad because I can still keep an eye on them’’, or to Durban, or overseas, ”which makes me really sad. It’s like saying goodbye to my kids’’. 

But then new horses come in to absorb her, and the cycle begins again. ”I love them all. They’re my life and I don’t know what I’d do without them.

”And it’s all made possible by my mentor, Mike, who gives me lots of advice and guidance.’’