AT the end of an eventful 2014, Mike de Kock speaks frankly about Majmu and the Met, his 2015 Dubai campaign and his frustration with the ongoing export protocol issues, with notes recorded by CHARL PRETORIUS. (Original headline art from www.summerhill.co.za)
ALMOST 11 years have flown by since the groundbreaking Dubai Racing Carnival at which Mike de Kock burst onto the international racing stage with Victory Moon and Ipi Tombe, who won seven races between them at Nad Al Sheba and Jebel Ali in 2003.
Mike has saddled a further 143 winners at the 10 Carnivals staged in the UAE since that golden year and he’s looking forward to the 2014/15 renewal of the annual racing extravaganza. He has assembled a string of 44 contenders from South Africa and elsewhere for his team’s latest assault on the various trophies and USD on offer in this intensely competitive three-month spell in the desert.
Formidable team: Mike de Kock, jockey Christophe Soumillon and owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum.
Mdk’s Team Carnival 2015 includes some established runners from previous seasons like Vercingetorix, Sanshaawes, Mickdaam, Anaerobio, Mushreq and Mujaarib. Among the newcomers are former top South African runners Yorker, Via Afrika, Whistle Stop, Red Ray, Atomic Rush and Forries Waltz.
Asked if there is possibly a Dubai World Cup contender in these ranks, Mike opines: “As always we’ll hope to have runners to qualify for most of the races on Cup night, but at this stage we don’t have a hopeful for the Cup itself. As you know racing will return to the dirt track at Meydan this season and with the exception of Pylon most of our horses are not exposed on the surface. I have no idea how they will shape on dirt, we’lll have to wait and see.
Meydan sunrise: Mike de Kock and assistant trainer Trevor Brown in discussion at morning gallops.
“When we raced on the sand track at the old Nad Al Sheba the Americans dominated the big races and this will probably happen again. Even when we had exceptional runners like Asiatic Boy and Victory Moon we couldn’t get close to the US horses that were sent to race at the Carnival.
“I am not opposed to dirt racing, however. We won many races on sand here in the earlier days, including Group races. We’ll get our runners fit and well, we can do no more. If they prove to be good enough, we’ll have another successful season with a number of winners.”
Mike often refers to Dubai as his “second home” and his many sojourns have produced highly rewarding results, but they haven’t come without sacrifices, including the frustrating and seemingly never-ending issues surrounding bloodstock exports from South Africa and being away from home on most Christmas Days celebrated in the last decade.
Speaking from ‘Blue’ Stables, his headquarters in the UAE, Mike reflects on the year that has passed. He says he was fortunate to have had his family with him in Dubai this Christmas including his son Mathew, who made a life-changing decision to follow in his dad’s footsteps on what was supposed to be a social visit to Mike’s stables in the Emirates a few years ago.
Mathew has grown in stature as an assistant trainer running Mike’s Johannesburg base at Randjesfontein. He’s being tipped in racing circles to take over everything soon but Mike dismisses the suggestion, saying: “I don’t know where the rumour comes from. There is plenty to achieve and I intend be around for a long time still. For crying out loud, I’m only 50 years old. But we’re a team, all of us. It’s not all about me.”
Mike says 2014 was a good year for himself and for South African racing and breeding in general. His international highlights were Gr1 wins with Variety Club (Hong Kong Mile) and Vercingetorix (Jebel Hatta). He points out rising star Majmu (Gr1 Avontuur Estate Cape Fillies Guineas) as the one that made the stable’s local season special.
Mike de Kock and Anton Marcus, celebrating n Hong Kong.
He says: “Variety Club’s victory in Hong Kong was a rare and wonderful moment and South Africa got some excellent mileage too. Delegates from the important Asian Racing Conference were in Hong Kong at the time, they saw how decisively the SA-bred Variety Club dealt with some of the world’s top runners. This was a prestigious and important race and it was viewed around the world.”
Champion Trainer of South Africa eight times, Mike’s career statistics show that he is roughly 200 winners short of the 3000-winner mark. He needs only a single success to chalk up 100 Gr1 winners, traditionally a milestone among the world’s most accomplished racehorse trainers.
While he admits that 100 Gr1 wins have been a lifelong ambition, Mike explains that the Trainers’ Championship has taken a back seat to his international exploits. It’s not a priority now, but if he’s in contention nearing the end of the season he will make an effort to regain the title he lost to the Young Turk Justin Snaith last season.
He comments: “I am competitive by nature and of course I like to win, but over the last several years we’ve geared the business in a global direction. Every year we do whatever we can to secure the best horses to compete with overseas. We buy at various thoroughbred sales and race most of our purchases in South Africa with the sole view of shipping the best ones to Dubai to campaign at the Carnival and then on to Europe and elsewhere if they prove to be good enough to trade punches at the highest levels.
“It’s not easy to win the trainers title at home without top older horses in your yard. My South African string is depleted when the best among them are exported every year. We’re left without big-race entries these days and that makes a telling difference in the log standings.”
That said, Mike is very pleased with his current group of three-year-olds and he tells: “I haven’t had a bunch of three-year-olds like this in many years. There are a few super talented prospects among them, this really excites me.”
Majmu: J&B Met unlikely at this juncture.
Racing enthusiasts have been speculating that three-year-old filly Majmu would bring up Mike’s ton of Gr1’s by winning the J&B Met on 31 January, but following the recent institution of movement restrictions on horses in Johannesburg she is unlikely to have a chance of fulfilling this hope.
Bitterly frustrated at this development, Mike says that his promising Gr1 Paddock Stakes entry, Pine Princess, will probably have to stay at Randjesfontein too when her counterparts race for the prize at Kenilworth on 10 January.
He comments: “In my view the whole scenario is completely ridiculous. There is simply no logic to these new movement protocols and they are not based on science. A few veterinarians are wielding the power, they are like referees in white coats and they’re messing things up for everyone. I think this protocol can be successfully challenged in a court of law but it will be a costly exercise and we’ll be making lawyers rich.”
Mike believes that the local restrictions have a bearing on the ongoing issues surrounding bloodstock exports from South Africa and says: “If we can’t get things right here at home, how are we ever going to remove the restrictive protocols that’s kept us from full access to the global racing industry for so long? After all that’s been said and done over the last 15 years, we’re worse off when it comes to exporting of our bloodstock than we’ve ever been, we’re still going nowhere!”
Often drawn into the export protocol battles due to the nature of his training operation and vociferous in his condemnation of the EU’s stance against South Africa, Mike has some new suggestions in this regard. He says: “We’ve walked a long and tiresome road with the EU, we’ve probably spent 50% of all our time of exporting under the EU restrictive protocols, under suspension. No country can trade under these conditions. We’ve been trying to find solutions but our efforts have been fruitless. Something else of importance is that South Africa won’t be able to bid on the 2024 Olympics if the export protocols are not lifted. So this matter is becoming vital on several fronts.
“I think that the solution lies in a shift of focus. We should be concentrating on individual racing jurisdictions instead of the collective. We should bypass the EU and start negotiations with single authorities. I would also suggest that we impose restrictions of our own on the countries that refuse to work with us. We should ban them from exporting their own horses to South Africa.
“The centres we should focus on are the UAE, Australia and the USA. I can assure you, for example, that the racing authorities in Dubai are very able and very willing to talk to us. They will help, they’re on our side. The aim should be the creation of a hub for exports in the UAE. They’re not part of the EU, if we make the right moves we’ll be able to fly horses straight into Dubai and out from there. Our industry will grow tremendously. But someone must take the ball and run with it, it is absolutely necessary for the South African government to get involved now and they’ll have to work closely with our industry leaders. Negotiations will have to take place on a political level.
“Having spoken to all the influential racing people in Dubai, I can assure you that their door is open. They helped us to break into world racing at the Dubai Carnival and they’ve drawn several benefits of their own being involved with us. We can eliminate the EU’s oppressing protocols, it should be done without further delay. Our racing and breeding industries will flourish almost overnight.