(Photos : Mike de Kock Racing/DRC)
“They came whizzing past the Nad Al Sheba grandstand about 6:30 Tuesday morning like this was a Los Angeles freeway. No sooner had trainer Mike de Kock turned his binoculars away from one pair of work horses than the glasses were trained on another pair breaking off down the backstretch. In all, eight Mike de Kock horses breezed in quick succession, and barring misfortune, all will run on the Dubai World Cup program here Saturday night. The filly Front House, one of the favorites in the $5 million Sheema Classic, exercised on a treadmill rather than the racetrack Tuesday. And Mike de Kock’s 10th World Cup Night horse, Asiatic Boy, was still back at the training yard.
An hour after those eight worked, Asiatic Boy had his final drill for the $6 million Dubai World Cup, breezing who knows how far over the brand spanking new training track constructed to accompany the new Meydan racetrack that opens next winter. Reaching out eagerly over the pristine Tapeta synthetic surface, Asiatic Boy did nothing to dispel the notion that this is his year. Two winters ago, he looked like a future World Cup winner, romping by almost 10 lengths in the UAE Derby. Last year, he ran into a little problem finishing second in the World Cup – a horse named Curlin. But Asiatic Boy’s preparations for the big race have gone more smoothly this time, a year when there is no standout like Curlin. Asiatic Boy’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum of Dubai, can now only hope for a decent draw and racing luck.
“It’s his dream to win this race,” Mike de Kock said.
Sheikh Mohammed’s dream, and maybe Mike de Kock’s destiny. The South African master horseman has settled into a position as Dubai’s most prominent trainer not named Saeed bin Suroor. On last year’s World Cup card he won two races - the UAE Derby with Honour Devil and the Sheema Classic with Sun Classique - and finished second in two others. While maintaining a strong presence in South Africa (he has three entries in the second leg of the South African Triple Crown on Saturday), Mike de Kock gears his winter around the Dubai Winter Carnival and to an even greater extent the World Cup program itself. And his horses have a way of showing their best when it counts.
If that happens, Mike de Kock could win three Saturday night. Arlington Million runner-up Archipenko, who had an easy turf work Tuesday in company with Lucky Find, was a troubled second in the 2008 Dubai Duty Free and is one of the top horses in this year’s race. Mike de Kock also pre-entered two other capable horses in the Dubai Duty Free, Russian Sage and Bankable. And even with his top 12-furlong horse Eagle Mountain injured and out of the Sheema Classic, he has Front House, King of Rome, and Macarthur for that race.
Argentine-bred Asiatic Boy will be Mike de Kock’s lone World Cup starter, with World Cup hopes for Honour Devil abandoned this week. But one might be enough. Asiatic Boy was purchased out of South America in summer 2006 and has made 9 of his 11 starts since at Nad Al Sheba. In summer 2007, he was taken to England for a turf campaign, finishing fourth and fifth in a pair of Group 1’s; Asiatic Boy was there last summer, too, but never raced.
“In England, he was never himself,” Mike de Kock said. “He had all kinds of little respiratory infections and things.”
And European turf racing also cut down Asiatic Boy’s form.
“He wants it firm and fast,” Mike de Kock said. “He wants to stay on top of the ground.”
But a one-surface pony Asiatic Boy is not, and he handles synthetic tracks at least as well as dirt. The horse’s affinity for both surfaces, and his discomfort on Euro-style turf, has led his connections to contemplate a U.S. invasion later this year.
Mike de Kock said the horse “flew over the ground” training on all-weather surfaces in England, and his all-weather work Tuesday drew high praise from Mike de Kock. The old dirt training track here, which Mike de Kock used regularly, closed this winter, and the new training track opened only three days ago. Set on high ground about a half-mile southwest of Nad Al Sheba, the nine-furlong track is mainly still a construction zone. A turf oval inside the Tapeta track has yet to be installed, the viewing building situated in the middle of the stretch is a work in progress, and there are no furlong poles up yet. Mike de Kock not only did not know how fast Asiatic Boy had worked, he did not know exactly how far.
But time meant little to Mike de Kock compared to the way Asiatic Boy stretched out over the surface. Tuesday marked Asiatic Boy’s second day on the Tapeta track, and spending the week of the World Cup on the synthetic surface could boost his chances Saturday. Training every day on dirt, Asiatic Boy has recently seemed unhappy and vaguely flat to his handlers.
“He tried to get me today,” Mike de Kock happily exclaimed, back at his office an hour later. “It was like the old Asiatic Boy. He’s a man-eater. I’ve been going out of my head, really, the last couple weeks, going back over my training books to see what we were doing before.”
While Mike de Kock has had as much success as anyone on the Nad Al Sheba dirt, he does not care for the surface.
“The dirt track here is not good for horses,” he said. The kickback in behind the pace can be intense, and trailing runners are at a major disadvantage. “You train for speed and stamina. Half the time, you’re training here just to make sure nothing’s going wrong.”
What can go wrong with Asiatic Boy are his hind feet. Mike de Kock said the horse is among the soundest he’s seen, but twice he has lost the inside part of a hind hoof. When he trains, he doesn’t wear shoes on his hind feet, which are shod only the day of the race.
And this much is likely: Asiatic Boy will have his running shoes on Saturday night.”