x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Travel travails of trainer Mike de Kock ahead of Dubai Carnival time

The South African tells Geoffrey Riddle of his plans and how tiring it can be to plot the fortunes of horses in Europe and Dubai together.

Mike de Kock at the Newbury racecourse last Sunday. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images
Mike de Kock at the Newbury racecourse last Sunday. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images

Mike de Kock used to be in the army, so time-keeping to him is important. This year, however, the most successful international trainer in the history of the Dubai World Cup Carnival is running late by a month.

Because of difficulties with the movement of his horses across South Africa and flight times, 14 of his horses bound for Dubai went into quarantine in Mauritius earlier this month.

It was the second leg of their tortuous journey to compete at Meydan Racecourse during this winter's Carnival, after passing quarantine in South Africa.

His string, which includes mostly horses owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, spent 21 days in quarantine in South Africa and now must stay on the paradise island for 90 days.

It sounds idyllic, but with the estimated cost of getting a horse from South Africa to Dubai set at around US$50,000 (Dh186,350) and the final 40 of those days spent under strictly monitored quarantine with few facilities to train, it is anything but idyllic.

From there, the horses progress to the Abingdon House facility in Newmarket, where they must spend a month before kicking on with a few additional stablemates to Dubai, where they will face another six days of quarantine.

It is an odyssey which severely hampers De Kock's chances at the Carnival.

Last year was the first full season that De Kock's horses took this circuitous route after a severe outbreak of African Horse Sickness in South Africa in 2011 saw export protocols change markedly.

De Kock's horses all needed time to adjust in Dubai, but after a run under their belt, they flourished to hand him 15 winners at Meydan Racecourse in 88 outings.

On World Cup night, he struck with Sheikh Hamdan's Soft Falling Rain in the Godolphin Mile and Shea Shea in the Al Quoz Sprint to accumulate just under Dh16.8 million in prize-money for the season, second only to Godolphin's Saeed bin Suroor at the region's flagship track.

Not a bad haul for a man who had to start planning that Carnival team in April 2012 and had to have a shortlist for quarantine two months later.

"I have to make the final call in June as to what I will be running in Dubai in January," De Kock says from behind his desk, which overlooks the stables in Abington Place.

"From the day I left Dubai after the World Cup, I've been looking at my horses in South Africa and trying to decide which ones will be good enough.

"There are better horses at home, but some of them are only just getting going and winning now, and you try choosing which three-year-olds are going to come good so early."

He comes armed to the teeth for this season's Carnival. Vercingetorix, the champion three-year-old colt of South Africa, leads his equine band of brothers, while in an effort to maximise his revenue streams, De Kock is also bringing several horses to Dubai for other trainers.

The three horses include Variety Club, the South African champion miler and two-time horse of year trained by Joey Ramsden, who is being accompanied by stablemate Blueridge Mountain, who is a Group 1-winning filly.

Heavy Metal, who carried S'manga Khumalo to become the first black jockey to win South Africa's iconic Durban July, will also come to Dubai for trainer Sean Tarry.

Other star names include Rameera, an unbeaten three-year-old filly, Full Combat and Journeyman, owned by Mary Slack, who are two colts their trainer hopes will carry his standard through the UAE colt's Classics.

In all, nine of the 14 are owned by Sheikh Mohammed and two are owned by Sheikh Hamdan.

Alexander Palace and Master Plan will head to Singapore after a spell in Dubai for respective owners Mark Yong and Fred Crabbia, who owned Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Rocket Man.

"There are two facilities in Mauritius," De Kock said. "You can't physically prepare a horse for racing there.

"There is an 800-metre strip that, at the best, you can do a hack canter on. They do basic work there in order to not lose complete muscle tone and not get too fat.

"They cannot leave their barn until two hours after sunrise and two hours in before sunset. I am getting more and more exasperated with what is going on. It is completely ridiculous.

"Things could change if we had a direct protocol between Dubai and South Africa."

The problematic export of racehorses from South Africa has made De Kock basically rethink his strategy. Where Dubai was once the only focus, it now serves as a lucrative stopover for a campaign in Europe.

From Newmarket, De Kock can then freely move his star horses back to Dubai the following season. It sounds easy, but so many things can go wrong.

For instance, Igugu came to Dubai last season with a huge reputation, but she remained in season, cycling on northern hemisphere time. It played havoc with her hormones and she did not win a race in four outings at Meydan Racecourse.

Emotif was another filly De Kock had hopes for, but she also struggled markedly at Meydan.

Due to hard work and patience, however, Igugu is ready to return to Dubai this season in much better shape after life in the quiet surrounds of Newmarket.

"The intention is to come back and I'm the happiest I have been with her for a long time," De Kock said. "Sometimes, fillies can take a year to come right in the northern hemisphere from the southern hemisphere. She will follow a similar programme to last year."

Others set to make a return are Shea Shea, who was touched off in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York on Friday and is pencilled in to have his European swansong in the Prix l'Abbaye de Longchamp in October.

Mars, a recent acquisition from Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle operation after De Kock watched his run in the Derby at Epsom in June on television, will also join the raiding party and be aimed at the Dubai World Cup.

De Kock also spent some money at the sales and hopes to bolster his team over the next few months, especially given the restriction of movement resulting from the South African affair.

"We will be definitely racing more in England and Europe as the string builds up," he said.

"We have already bought six unraced youngsters here and are hoping that one or two of them will be good enough for Dubai."

There is evidence that the international travel and focus on Europe and Dubai is taking its toll on De Kock, 49, who said he is tired of being on planes. His staff barely know when he is going to drop everything and fly off somewhere about a horse, he said.

He was named the champion trainer of South Africa this month for the eighth time, and despite his punishing schedule, is hopeful he can keep up his record in his homeland.

He trains a string of around 180 horses in South Africa, around 50 of which are owned by Sheikh Mohammed.

"Fortunately, I do have a few nice horses in South Africa and I keep the home fires burning, let's put it that way," he said. "You could make a living with a string I have in Mauritius, and this lot would be the difference between winning and losing a championship.

"I need to be champion trainer again in South Africa, otherwise they forget you. You know how this game is."

Mike de Kock’s views on his wards

Trainer Mike de Kock provides a horse-by-horse guide to his team in Mauritius and which is bound for Dubai.


Owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

He is the unbeaten champion three-year-old colt of South Africa. He has the view of the Dubai Duty Free or Dubai World Cup. It is easy to make mistakes with horses like him, as a young horse can get to Dubai and does not go on.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Unbeaten three-year-old filly in four races and Guineas winner in South Africa. I will be looking at the Balanchine and Cape Verdi with her.

Full Combat

Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid

UAE Derby prospect.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Three-year-old filly who is a UAE 1,000 Guineas and UAE Oaks prospect.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Three-year-old filly who is another for which I have the Guineas and Oaks in mind


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Same as Magrooma and Mensoora. Three-year-old fillies either go on the all-weather for the Guineas Trial, 1,000 Guineas, and Oaks or you take on the colts on the grass, or take on the older fillies in the Cape Verdi and Balanchine.


Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid

Quite a nice older horse. He’s a five-year-old Group 2 winner.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Four-year-old Listed winner who looks on the up.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

A handicapper who I hope may be Listed class in Dubai.

Alexander Palace

Mark Yong

I think he is Group class and after racing in Dubai, he will go on to train with Patrick Shaw in Singapore, where the owner is based.


Mary Slack

Three-year-old sprinter who could be a miler. I think he is a Guineas-type horse, I’m not sure whether he’ll stay further. Promising.

Master Plan

Fred Crabbia

He’s a Group 1 winner and is another who will be going to Patrick Shaw in Singapore after Dubai


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Four-year-old gelding who is Group class.


Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa

Group 2 sprinter

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