Mike de Kock has been training since 1988, been champion South African trainer 8 times, campaigned all over the world, racked up 100 grade one winners and counting and now stands on the threshold of his 3000th career win. The Sporting Post caught up with Mike for a quick chat from his Dubai base to wish him a happy birthday and to see how he is feeling ahead of his impending milestone.
How is he feeling as the big number approaches? “I’m not thinking about it too much to be honest with you. I’m not really one that likes to look back – I prefer to look forward – but I must be honest, I’m quite content with the lot I’ve been dealt in life and am happy with what I’ve achieved. I’ve been to countries and won races that most people never even get to. If I fell over tomorrow, I would be quite content. I think I’ve reached and realised most of my realistic goals, put it that way. I have a lovely family, I’m fairly financially comfortable and I’ve done well out of racing.”
The training phenomenon that is Mike de Kock has its roots in a boyhood fascination for horses, but started in earnest thanks to another training legend, Ormond Ferraris, who gave him his start in racing with a stable employee job. After a brief stint with Robbie Sage, Mike became the assistant trainer to Ricky Howard-Ginsberg in 1987, taking over the yard when Ginsberg died suddenly of a heart attack later that same year. He saddled his first winner in his own right just one week later when Evening Mist won the Gerald Rosenberg Handicap. Reflecting on those early days, could he ever have imagined he’d reach the heady heights of his famous Blue Stables in Dubai? “If you asked me to write the script, I wouldn’t have been able to. When I started training, I had absolutely no expectation of being where we are at the moment. To tell you the truth, back then I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you where Dubai was! It’s only later, when you get a good horse like Horse Chestnut that you start looking and thinking a bit bigger. You can’t have ambitions without the animal. I think that fires you up. It’s like being Ernie Els playing on the Sunshine Tour – if you’re winning on that, you start thinking maybe the American or European circuits are a possibility. When you get a really good horse, you start to think the same way, so it’s the animal that takes you there.”
Looking back over the last 30 years, are there any standout highlights? “I’ve been massively blessed in that I’ve had too many highlights to really choose, but Horse Chestnut is always going to go down as the one horse that was a turning point and took things to another level – certainly in South Africa. And then of course going to the USA. His win in America was the most unbelievable thing to experience – it was just phenomenal. It felt like having an out of body experience. It was also a realisation that you can accomplish more than you have in your own country, so it was probably a mental turning point for me too. I suppose if one’s going to single out anything, it would have to be that.”
It is particularly appropriate to chat to Mike in Dubai because while the US win was an important springboard, in terms of arriving on the international stage, it was the desert kingdom that put Mike on the map when he won the Dubai Duty Free and the UAE Derby on World Cup night back in 2003. “Ipi Tombe and Victory Moon were definitely a life changing experience. The two of them together, winning on the same night, on World Cup night, and going from obscurity to win on the biggest stage in the world – that was mind-boggling,” he reflects. “And I haven’t looked back. Dubai gave me the springboard and opportunity to explore the rest of the world.”
Mike married into the Cawcutt family via his wife Diane and they have two children. Daughter Kirsten is studying dance in Cape Town and son Mathew joined the yard in 2009 and is following in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a racing career. Has it been tough combining an international career with maintaining family ties? “My wife’s done a good job. Being ambitious with my career, I’ve probably been away half their lives, but I’ve been lucky and we’ve always been a close family. It’s been a sacrifice, but it has been rewarding and the financial rewards have been there.”
With a career as eventful and successful as his, are there any dreams and ambitions he is still chasing? “I don’t want to sit here and say I want to win the Kentucky Derby or the Epsom Derby – those things are almost unrealistic, and it’s not something I’m hell bent on doing. I’m pretty comfortable with what I’ve achieved so far and don’t have massive unrealistic dreams and ambitions, but if life takes me there and it happens, it happens. I’m something of a fatalist in that respect.”
Are there any celebrations planned for when the big 3000 happens? “No, personally I’m not one for big fusses. I don’t even want to think about it too much – sometimes if you expect these things, they never seem to come. When it happens, we’ll have a couple of drinks.” “It’s nice, it’s something to be proud of and something I am very proud of achieving, but life carries on and one has to keep looking forward. As you reach these milestones, you realise you’re not at the top of the mountain. There are still guys above you, so you can’t rest on your laurels. We’ll just crack on.”
3000 winners is a fantastic number in anybody’s book, but great achievements are not without cost. Whether milestone numbers mean anything in the greater scheme of things is debatable, but if nothing else, they are a reminder to look back and take stock of the journey so far. Mike’s achievements may have come in pursuit of his own career ambitions, but the impact they have had on South Africa and our reputation in the international racing world in the process is incalculable. As an industry we can be very proud to have an ambassador like Mike fighting our corner.
Happy birthday Mike, congratulations and thanks from all of us.