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The Big 60 Looms For Uncle Mike

South Africa's greatest racing ambassador

With a bonny grandson in each hemisphere and racing interests in Australia, South Africa’s all-time leading international ambassador and eight-times national champion conditioner boasts the distinction of saddling a SA record 135 Gr1 winners and counting.

Jessica Slack-Jell and Mike de Kock with the Wilgerbosdrift Fillies Guineas trophy last Saturday (Pic – JC Photos

Mike de Kock celebrates his 60th birthday on Valentine’s Day next week, and after Saturday’s superb showing by the undefeated Gimme A Nother, he could be on the verge of yet another SA Triple Tiara victory. And who knows, maybe even a sixth Hollywoodbets Durban July victory?

Mike has trained over 3500 winners in South Africa, UAE, Hong Kong, Singapore, United Kingdom and the USA, and when it comes to getting the job of converting any remote potential into champions, he’s the right man.

After Gimme A Nother had registered her fifth straight victory on Saturday, he observed that these kind of horses ‘don’t come round too often’.

“She’s versatile. She could just as well have led them. This was all very special and a proper family affair. I trained the grandmother, mother and now the daughter – I’m really feeling old! What an honour to train horses like this,” he added.

While Igugu, who won the Triple Tiara in 2011, is De Kock’s only SA Triple Tiara winner to date, the Slack family have enjoyed the thrill of shouting home Cherry On The Top in 2013 (Ormond Ferraris) and Summer Pudding in 2020 (Paul Peter).

Their own Horse Chestnut was saddled by De Kock in 1999 to win the Triple Crown – although a humour misjudgement almost meant that it all never happened!

When the late Bridget Oppenheimer personally rang on 10 April 1995 to offer him some horses to train, the then much younger Mike de Kock didn’t realise it was the start of decades of yellow and black clad stars, and actually thought it was a joke.

It was not until the then Mauritzfontein stud manager Gavin Schafer rang to ask whether he’d taken leave of his senses, that he realised his blunder.

Happily, Mrs Oppenheimer saw the funny side of things and the black and yellow silks have become a part of the furniture at the De Kock Randjesfontein HQ.

And he made the tardy start up to Mrs O on 12 December 1995, ensuring that his first runner in the Oppenheimer silks, a filly named Langoustine, came home a winner.

The Oppenheimer connection has continued via their daughter Mary Slack, and more recently, her daughter Jessica Slack-Jell, and through them Mike has forged a powerful association with Jehan Malherbe and Dr John McVeigh.

 

Three generations! Mary Slack, the late Bridget Oppenheimer, and Jessica Slack-Jell (Pic – Supplied)

So, who is SA racing’s newest 60-year-old?

He grew up in Alberton and was only 23 when he started training horses. The eldest of six children, his Dad Terry sold cars, and Mom Anne managed the busy home.

Despite neither of his folks having an interest in racing, Mike was obsessed from an early age and soaked up any information he could – long before the days of social media and keyboard warriors.

He used to sneak into Newmarket to get as close to the action as he could, and even secured a job at Southern Timbers across the road from the course  – not only did the company have a lot of racing connected customers, he could also watch the live show from his office window.

He met David Ferraris at Alberton High School and the two became friends. They discussed racing endlessly and David took Mike to his Dad Ormond’s yard, where he got to watch and learn.

After school, Mike spent his national service furthering his knowledge by joining the equestrian unit at Potchefstroom, receiving a grounding in anatomy, feeding and stable management and completing his riding instructors’ course.

He then contacted his old friend and got a stable employee job for Ormond Ferraris.  He once described that time as ‘some of the hardest, yet most rewarding’ times of his life, but most importantly, his foot was now firmly in the door.

He worked briefly for Robbie Sage, before joining Ricky Howard-Ginsberg in 1987.  When Mr Ginsberg suddenly died of a heart attack in December 1987, a reluctant Mike was persuaded to take-over the reins.

“I think it’s a mark of what a good man he was that his friends all still wanted to race together and wanted me to carry on with the yard when he died,” he recalled in an earlier interview.

The motivated youngster saddled his first winner one week into the job, when Evening Mist won the Gerald Rosenberg Handicap. She would also give him his first Gr1 in the April 1989 Administrator’s Champion Stakes and, carrying 55kgs, finished a 1,6 lengths fourth in the mud bath that was the 1989 Rothmans July.

Mike completed the half term with 25 wins and notched 41 wins in 1989/90, his first season as a fully-fledged trainer.

He moved to Randjesfontein in the early ‘90’s with his then wife-to-be, Diane Cawcutt, who had been working for James Goodman as an assistant-cum-work-rider.

Diane is the daughter of the late champion jockey Johnny Cawcutt and is bred in the purple as far as racing pedigrees go. She  cut her teeth with Terrance Millard’s string on Blaauwberg beach before relocating to Johannesburg in 1985.

Although Mike got a head start by inheriting the Ginsberg string and his early years included the likes of Evening Mist, Record Edge, Golden Hoard and Spook Express, his really big break came in the form of the Mauritzfontein marvel, Horse Chestnut.

Just goes to show, how life can turn on a tickey!

Today Mike de Kock runs a powerful string. His son Mathew is in partnership with multiple Gr1 winning trainer Robbie Griffiths in Australia, while daughter Kirsten is married and lives in the USA.  Grandsons Liam and Owen mean Oupa also travels a lot!

Happy birthday, Mike.

 

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2 comments on “The Big 60 Looms For Uncle Mike

  1. LES Hale says:

    Wishing you All the best and many many more Mike.
    Keep up the good work we need trainers like you to keep the flags flying in Gauteng.
    Congrats on all your achievements and continue the race.
    We know how tough it is at times here in S A

  2. Cecil Pienaar says:

    Dear Mike, aka Sir MdK

    Happy 60th from all of us at Umshwathi. Today you join
    an elite club that includes the likes of William M, our Editor,
    Frankie and George* to name a few

    Happy Valentine’s day to Mrs Diane

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