AS you approach Abingdon House stables in Newmarket, the large wrought-iron gates are wide open. On the Bury Road, opposite Sir Michael Stoute’s famously private Freemason Lodge, the British base of Mike de Kock is easy to access.
The South African is clearly a great believer in an open-door policy.
But new quarantine procedures in the UAE have shut the gates on his plans for the Dubai World Cup Carnival next year, the trainer said.
The regulations were put in place after a severe outbreak of African Horse Sickness (AHS) in South Africa earlier this year. The procedure involves a 21-day isolation period in South Africa, followed by a 90-day stint on the island of Mauritius. After that, the horses must spend a month in the European Union before shipping to the UAE, where they undergo a further six days under quarantine in Dubai.
Neither the South Africa or Mauritius quarantines have training facilities, and De Kock said he was not willing to put his horses through a regime that would leave them inactive for almost five months.
“Any trainer will tell you that when you let a horse down fully it is very hard to get it back to a peak,” De Kock said. “After 10 days of inactivity horses begin to lose bone density, as they are not doing weight-bearing exercise.
“Also, you change surfaces and every time you change surfaces the horses’ bones have to remodel, their bodies have to reshape. It would mean that our horses would be ready to run just at the end of the Carnival.”
As a result, De Kock said, some of his top horses – including those owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid – will not make the circuitous journey to Dubai.
“If things do not change then my horses are not going,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with De Kock’s position, however. Herman Brown, another leading South African trainer who races in Dubai, has accepted the quarantine and currently has a team of horses housed in Mauritius, awaiting their next stop in the EU.
De Kock commented: “Herman told me he has only sent two horses via Mauritius, he would have sent more had a direct route been possible and has spent money buying horses abroad he could have spent in South Africa, which indeed I have done too.”
De Kock left England this week and returned to South Africa. The globe-trotting handler spent a few days in Newmarket to check his string, having saddled River Jetez to come third in the Beverley D in Arlington last Saturday.
He left not reflecting on a job well done, but on how his success in Dubai – he has the second most wins at the Carnival, behind the UAE trainer Saeed Bin Suroor – is on the verge of collapse.
De Kock has been the leading international handler every year since the Carnival’s inception in 2004. The 47 year old’s association with Sheikh Mohammed, now his main patron, has seen the South African’s operation grow significantly.
Even before the Carnival began, he caught the attention of UAE racing fans with the exploits of Ipi Tombe, the champion filly that set alight the 2003 season with victories in the Al Fahidi Fort, the Jebel Hatta and the Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba.
De Kock has unearthed a filly that he believes is in the same league as Ipi Tombe. Igugu, this season, became the first filly to win South Africa’s Triple Tiara, similar to America’s Triple Crown.
But because De Kock will not accept the new quarantine regulations, the Sheikh Mohammed-owned filly will not grace Meydan racecourse’s recently expanded fixture list.
Neither will Sheikh Hamdan’s exciting Australian colt, Mushreq, and a whole host of new talent. They will remain in the Rainbow Nation.
“I’d like to believe that by us attending the Carnival in the manner in which we have been has been very good for racing in Dubai,” De Kock said. “The purpose of setting up the Carnival was to give everyone throughout the world a chance to compete.
“It is the Olympics of racing, [but] we’ll have to compete with the B team.”
Housed in Newmarket are the stars of seasons past such as Musir, Mahbooba, Golden Sword, Reem and Bold Silvano, who missed out on a crack at the Dubai World Cup in March due to an injured foot. Last week, De Kock purchased, on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed, Master Of Hounds from Aidan O’Brien’s stable. The UAE Derby runner-up, who subsequently went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby, may be most people’s idea of a first string representative, but De Kock bought him to fill the expected void.
“We have a few others around Europe, such as Mutahadee, a decent maiden with Tommy Stack, and Mickdaam with Richard Fahey, and we have been buying yearlings in the northern hemisphere hoping that they will come through,” he said. “But the odds of that happening is not exactly stacked in your favour.
“What chances have you got of buying a good horse at a yearling sale?”
De Kock can be brash at times, and some may see his position on the quarantine as posturing to get his own way. It is not only self-interest that drives his quest, however.
Musir and Mahbooba are among a large group of horses bred in Australia by Sheikh Mohammed that used South Africa as a nursery before shipping to Dubai. That route is now effectively closed off to the others who have cottoned on. Perhaps more important, the South African breeding industry, which has come far since their horses have been showcased in Dubai, could be hit hard.
“If you get a good one, and it is not always a given, South African bloodstock is world class,” said Angus Gold, Sheikh Hamdan’s racing manager, who acquired Zanzamar, last season’s UAE Derby fourth, from South Africa. Sheikh Hamdan spent 5 million rand (Dh2.5m) on six horses in the two-day Cape Premier Yearling Sale in January.
“The bloodstock is a lot cheaper than in Europe or Australia, too,” Gold said.
South Africa produces around 3,500 foals from 500 stud farms per year, but exports of horses from South Africa have dropped dramatically in recent years due to AHS.
In 2007 the country exported 153 thoroughbreds. That dropped to just 51 two years ago.
The dangers of AHS – which once killed 300,000 horses in the Middle East in a two-year period – are clear.
The disease is transmitted, like malaria, through at least two species of Culicoides midges, known as vectors. It is a List A disease according to the World Organisation for Animal Health’s classification, and it has potential for very serious and rapid spread.
“The risk of getting AHS is so terrifying for any country. Absolutely, that is the main reason why the UAE has set up its laws this way,” said Dr Julia Reeves, the director of animal health for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries commission of South Africa.
“If you get a horse into the UAE that is carrying the virus and a vector bites the horse, it can transmit the virus.”
UAE officials have said they are working towards a solution.
Dr Tom Morton, the chief quarantine veterinary officer for the Emirates Racing Association, visited South Africa to inspect AHS controls in May. In June, the UAE Ministry of Environment & Water received an application from South Africa for shipment of racehorses directly, but as yet the ministry has not acknowledged the application.
In the last year, River Jetez has been through 112 days of quarantine, having competed in South Africa, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and America last week.
Although De Kock and his team complain about the regulations, they acknowledge that quarantine with facilities to train is part and parcel of the international racing landscape that has exploded thanks largely to the Breeders Cup and Dubai Carnival. But they say the ability to train one’s horses must be the minimum requirement.
Steven Jell, De Kock’s assistant, went through it all with River Jetez, and said enough is enough.
“We’ve got to the UAE pretty much every way [possible],” he said. “We have done it the hard way and we have done it the easy way. We have our horses tested as many times as Lance Armstrong has been tested, and nothing has ever happened.
“We can take all the quarantine on the chin, and we’ll do the 100-plus days, but this Mauritius thing is too much. Ninety days without exercise, it’s just not fair on an athlete.
“You ask these Newmarket trainers to go through 100 days quarantine and they’d never go to Dubai.”
-Geoffrey Riddle, The National Sport.