MIKE de Kock says that rumours of his early retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Almost 25 years into a hugely accomplished career, he’s looking forward to more time at the helm of his streamlined international racing operation. He’s fulfilled a number of his goals, but a few more are fuelling his next spell as South Africa’s foremost racing ambassador. Mike talks to CHARL PRETORIUS about his objectives and vision for the years that lie ahead – this is an article from the September 2013 edition of PARADE Magazine.
MIKE de Kock has sent out more than 2,500 winners since December 1988, near 150 of them in nine other countries around the world. His tally includes 95 Gr1 successes, a Triple Crown for colts and fillies and eight National training titles. He’s built arguably the most formidable training team on the globe, gained international fame and recognition and worked with a long list of illustrious thoroughbreds.
The responsibilities and stress that come with managing four training bases on three continents is enough to drive most to distraction. But the excitement and high rewards associated with the Sport Of Kings, coupled with his increasingly important industry role have kept Mike focused and strong.
Approaching 50, the man the UK’s Racing Post has named “The South African maestro” is at the top of his profession. He has the energy and commitment to aim at even higher levels of achievement and in his trademark no-nonsense fashion is more determined than ever to make things happen.
As always, Mike is quick to praise his team of assistants, grooms and bloodstock experts. He says: “I have surrounded myself with reliable and experienced people, starting with the Chris Haynes and Gary Grant of the Equine Group, who took over my financial affairs including accounting, tax and wages. This has given me peace of mind, which is essential when training.
“I am able to travel often whilst constantly having my finger on the pulse, knowing that everything runs smoothly. My team’s trustworthy excellence has allowed me to attain a balance between everything I have to do. I love racing, it’s a complete way of life which won’t ever allow me to break ties and disappear into the sunset. But I won’t work myself into a frenzy. I am not scared of enjoying myself and I’ve been able to balance my work with plenty of quality time.
“A trainer doesn’t need to work 24/7 to be successful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee results. Training is about balance too, balancing feeding and fitness and placing your runners in the right races. My assistant trainers know this principle. I’ve given them much of my own responsibilities. They treat my business as their own. While I continue to oversee everything, they’ve grown as individuals, stable managers and horsemen. John Buckler, Nathan Kotzen, Trevor Brown, Steven Jell and Tammy Dawson are top trainers in their own right.”
Mike is proud of his son Mathew, who joined the stable two years ago and has made his presence felt as a roving assistant. “Mathew is really talented as a horseman and I’m not just saying that because I’m his father. I will hand over to him in due course, but it’s a transition that will take time. He’s learnt much in his short time under our wing, but there’s plenty more I need to teach him.”
Mike at home, on the phone to Steven Jell in the UK.
His wife Diane’s natural affinity for young horses became the key to what Mike terms “an important change of business strategy”, implemented a few years ago and carried out with huge success by his better half.
He explains: “Along with the handover of business issues to the Equine Group, we decided to separate our two-year-olds entirely from our older group of racers. Every season our new two-year-olds are sent directly from the various sales or farms to Diane’s barn at Randjesfontein. She has a top team of grooms dedicated to the newcomers and they’re working wonders. I do not touch the two-year-olds. They come to me when Diane and her assistant Vivian Nkosi believe they are ready for full race preparation. This frees the rest of us to concentrate on the racing string. It makes a big difference in the efficiency and fluent running of the yard.”
In the just completed 2012/13 season, team De Kock racked up 164 winners, a record for the stable. There are no readily available statistics to show whether Mike’s eight championship titles are a South African record, but it might well be. While the NHA get their database updated to include the achievements of the legendary trainers of yesteryear and make a comparison possible, a double figure of titles would do no harm to the modern-day legend’s CV!
Mike comments: “In recent years I haven’t set out to win the championship, but I’m competitive by nature and yes, a few more titles won’t hurt. It’s won’t be easy, however. There are a few top young trainers on the block. Guys like Sean Tarry and Justin Snaith are good at what they do, ambitious and chasing hard. They’re closing the gap.
“To win the title one needs a champion in the stable, a horse that can win you Gr1 races and big stakes. Every year we export our best horses and I’ve enjoyed a bit of luck to get to eight titles, so nothing’s cast in stone going forward. Last season our potential money spinners like Igugu, Mushreq, Kavanagh and Soft Falling Rain were shipped to Dubai. Vercingetorix appeared on the scene to pull us through, but he’s also on his way to the desert now along with Rumya, Lehaaf, Full Combat, Mujaarib and a few others. We’ll be hoping something comes out of the woodwork again in the new term.”
Few would bet against another racing machine emerging from De Kock’s remaining South African string in 2013/14 to give them an edge, but Mike’s personal focus will be shifting progressively to the plum prizes abroad. “We’ve ruled the roost locally, but when you’re at the top there will always be someone to knock the ladder from under your feet. Our local objective now will be to stay at the top of the log in the face of our strong opposition. It’s a formidable task but with our team structures so well in place we are capable of holding our own. ”
The stable office at Abington Place, overlooking the yard.
Mike has set his sights on “more international exploration”. He tells: “I’ve competed in ten countries and I want to go to more. We’re broadening our base at Newmarket, where we have top facilities at Mary Slack’s Abington Place, a beautiful property formerly occupied by Geoff Wragg. Jessica Slack is managing things at Abington. She’s in charge of many improvements taking place. It is easy to ship runners from Newmarket around Europe and other parts of the world.
“We want to establish a strong international string to give us representation in the world’s biggest races, starting in the UK. We’ve been buying more horses bred in the Northern Hemisphere at sales like Goffs and Tattersalls. Racing here doesn’t make economic sense if you don’t have the firepower to go for the major events on the calendar.”
The Melbourne Cup, Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup are on a list of famous races Mike would love to win, but the Investec Epsom Derby stands out and the eyes will be out for a possible future contender. “The Derby is the one race every trainer dreams of winning. It’s an international standard-setter heaped in tradition, nobility and prestige. That it is now sponsored by a South African interest makes it all the more worthy to chase. The thought of being a South African with a runner in the Derby gives me goose bumps.”
Mike, Declan Cronin (left) and Steven Jell, walking from the Newmarket training track to the stable yard.
Investec’s Bernard Kantor is one of the pivots in a group of powerful patrons Mike counts himself as incredibly privileged to train for. “I have the support of Bernard, Mary Slack, Larry Nestadt, Mike Rattray, Markus Jooste, Gaynor Rupert and of course Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan of Dubai. They’ve given me their confidence and have put their money down, paving the way.”
Jehan Malherbe of Form Bloodstock and Dr John Mcveigh complete Mike’s ‘Hands-On’ team. “Jehan and I select horses at sales all over the world and we’re always on the lookout for purchases of suitable horses in training. Jehan has knowledge of pedigrees second to none, a well-trained eye and he is on top of the world’s racing results. John McVeigh is invaluable when it comes to ‘broken’ horses. I’ve accepted his expertise and I’ve learnt from him.”
“We’ve just acquired a top UK three-year-old, Mars, from Coolmore Stud. He’s a terrific prospect, possibly in the league of Archipenko and Eagle Mountain, who both won Gr1 races in Hong Kong. We’ll start him off in Dubai and bring him back to Europe next year.”
Finding a way for South African racing to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world remains a high priority. Mike comments: “I am a true South African. My greatest wish is to see the issues around our export and import protocols being solved so that we can race without the severity of restrictions we have to cope with. Global racing is a village, provided you’re not a South African. We must strengthen our efforts to eliminate the discrimination against us. We’ve knocked on doors, we’ve written letters and we’ve had meetings, but for every step forward we seem to be taking two steps back. I will do everything I can to help so that we can break down those doors. The time has come to get aggressive!”