Blue Stables are something of a sad sight. Once they were full of horses and with a South African flag flying proudly outside. Now there are just a couple of heads poking over the doors and the trophies in the office date back a few years.

We can’t even blame Covid-19 for the demise of the Dubai branch of Mike De Kock’s hugely successful business. 

The travails began way before that, when a ban on the direct import of horses from South Africa to the European Union began in 2013, due to an outbreak of African Horse Sickness. Since then, De Kock’s string have had to travel to Dubai via the UK, and only then after first spending 30 days in quarantine in Mauritius. 

The ban on direct travel effectively keeps the horses away from the track for six months, meaning inevitable loss of fitness as well as racing opportunities. As a result, De Kock has slipped from training 16 winners in the UAE in 2011, to just one in 2020. His last Dubai World Cup meeting success was with Mubtaahij in the UAE Derby, back in 2015. 

Now, De Kock spends less time in Dubai and more in South Africa, where his runners continue to plunder top races with regularity, Queen Supreme’s G1 Paddock Stakes and Malmoos’ Gauteng Guineas being the latest big successes. The current world #12 trainer wants more, though, and is planning a return to the glory days in Dubai, as well as using it as a base from which to send horses to Australia, where his son Mathew has entered into a training partnership with successful trainer and former jockey Robbie Griffiths.

“We’re hoping to revive Dubai again, sort of 2022, and look at moving horses between here and Australia, with Mathew down there,” he says, happy to chat during a week-long stay in the UAE.  

“That’s something we’ve set our sights on. There’s no point in leaving horses here in the summer, not earning, when the stakes are as lucrative as they are in Australia. I think it’s something which needs investigating. We keep trying new things. What else can we do?”

That attitude has long served De Kock well. As one of the pioneers of international racing, his successes in Dubai stretch back to the year before the advent of the Dubai World Cup Carnival. 

In 2003 he secured a memorable World Cup night double, with Ipi Tombe in the G1 Dubai Duty Free and Victory Moon in the G2 UAE Derby. Plenty more have followed since then, with his Dubai base providing a springboard for successes in Hong Kong, with the likes of IrridescenceEagle Mountain and Archipenko, and Singapore, with Lizard’s Desire. In 2015 De Kock even took on the American Triple Crown with Mubtaahij, the colt doing him credit by finishing fourth in American Pharoah’s Belmont. 

Big believer

He’s happier to look forward than back, but, when pressed, he names that 2003 World Cup night double as the highlight of his time in the Emirates.  

“It’s the first one, really. I suppose it’s like having your first love. The Victory Moon/Ipi Tombe night was massive, and the first night of the Poly [Tapeta] here in 2010 was massive.

“[We] won huge races here. You couldn’t even write the script, and we’d really love to get back to those days and get those quality of animals back here. I’m still a really big believer in the Dubai Carnival and the whole Dubai dream itself.”

So where did it all go wrong? De Kock, never one to sugarcoat, lays the blame squarely at the feet of the EU. 

“[The ban on export] just killed our business and killed the South African business too in that we used to get a lot more international buyers. In the meantime the EU is just looking on. We are staring massive job losses right down the barrel of a gun; there are fewer horses in training, and right now it just doesn’t seem to worry them.

Enthusiasm on the wane

“If you look at a horse like [G1 Daily News 2000 and Jebel Hatta winner] Vercingetorix, he will be champion stallion in South Africa; he’s really flying along. It’s been a privilege being associated with it, but I’d like to get that back. Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum was really a big owner in the Carnival before, with a lot of horses. The export has even taken away his enthusiasm; he loved to bring in four or five horses per year, new horses, but it’s killed all of us, participation-wise. 

“Sheikh Hamdan, too, used to enjoy letting us bring his best out of South Africa, and it’s unfortunately changed all of that. The spinoff is that their interest in South African racing has waned too. They used to have over 100 horses in training between them and it’s way less than that now. It purely rests at the door of export, so hopefully we can get that right and get them interested again.”

De Kock’s words are timely, as it has since been announced that Sheikh Hamdan will wind down his Southern Hemisphere operation – including South Africa. So is there any hope of change in the near future?

“I must admit, this time last year I was more bullish. There’s a hell of a lot of enthusiasm from South Africa, but we’re not receiving the same enthusiasm from the EU. In fact, it might play into our hands with Brexit, in that it might be easier to negotiate with England than the EU, because the EU quite frankly just haven’t delivered on promises, and in the meantime our industry is ailing. 

“If there’s no good news by March/April of next year then I’m not sure there ever will be good news, but we can’t drop the ball now, and hopefully England will come to the party. I think they’ll be pretty desperate to do trade deals and we can certainly contribute to the economy of racing there, if we’re allowed to.”

De Kock already has contributed, in a small way, with his involvement prompting influential South African owner Mary Slack to buy Abington Place Stables in Newmarket. The historic yard now serves as a UK base not only for De Kock, but also for the international horses that race in the UK during the summer. Black Caviar is just one of those to have launched a successful Royal Ascot mission from the Bury Road stables. 

Recently, De Kock has used Abingdon Place to winter his latest two Dubai recruits, Najem Suhail and Marshall, who arrived at Meydan in January. 

“It’s a pity that they’ve arrived so late as they’re both nice horses,” he says. “Najem Suhail, I think, is a proper Group sprinter. He’s a horse that, if he went back to Australia, would be very competitive there. Marshall is a hard-knocking handicapper sort and I was keen on bringing him here for the handicaps, although it doesn’t look like he’ll get to run in them, unfortunately. 

“Super Saturday [next weekend, March 6] at the weights is not going to suit Marshall, but Najem Suhail I’m hoping will be ready for the Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint. There’s probably going to be a lack of numbers, so they’ll get runs, it’s just whether or not they’re going to be competitive at the level of fitness they’ll be at.”

Potential in Australia

It’s not all doom, and gloom, however. De Kock is visibly proud of Mathew’s achievements and excited for what he sees as huge potential in Australia. 

“Getting together with a man like Robbie Griffiths has been something that has been pretty unexpected, but it’s been an absolute godsend,” he says. “It’s fantastic for Mathew to learn from him and to be part of the racing down there. It’s a wonderful racing jurisdiction, very strong, and I’m keen to get behind them and move as many horses as I can to them. I think there’s a lot of potential for participating in the Carnival here and also the lucrative carnivals in Australia.”

Team De Kock may look different these days, but the ambition to showcase the best of South African bloodstock globally remains as strong as ever. Maybe one day, those Blue Stables will be full of stars once again.