South African De Kock Tries Luck in Cup

Trainer of Eagle Mountain helps broaden international appeal of U.S. racing festival.

Michael de Kock, the internationally renowned trainer of Eagle Mountain, breaks new ground for the Breeders' Cup World Championships when he becomes the first South African to compete in the event. Eagle Mountain runs in the $3 million Emirates Airline Turf (gr. IT) at Santa Anita Oct. 25.

While Eagle Mountain is testing a salty group in the 1 1/2-mile test, the 4-year-old British-bred colt has been getting quite a bit of notice following his scintillating debut for the native South African de Kock at Newmarket Oct. 3.

Making his first start in a year after breaking his pelvis, Eagle Mountain set a course record for one mile (1:34), posting a head victory in the Nayef Joel Stakes (Eng-III).

“He’s got a big stride for a little horse,” de Kock said while watching his charge put in a strong gallop over the Santa Anita turf course under brilliant blue skies the morning of Oct. 23. It was the third exercise since clearing quarantine Oct. 21, and de Kock pronounced Eagle Mountain fit and ready for his American debut.

A longshot to even make the race, Eagle Mountain is now considered a contender.

“I had three others that I was planning to come here with and things didn’t turn out that way,” said de Kock, who resides near Johannesburg. “We were lucky that we had backup with this horse. We didn’t think we were on target for the Breeders’ Cup, but his last one showed that he was. So we were able to switch plans.”

De Kock has started just three horses in the U.S. – with fantastic success so far – but his limited exposure here could change in the near future, he said.

The 44-year-old conditioner, who trains several for Eagle Mountain’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed, noted that there are more numerous options for races in North America.

“This is where I’d like to be,” said de Kock, who trains 180 horses in his far-flung empire, including 45 in Dubai and England. “I’ll be looking to race more in the States.”

De Kock also trains for Bridget Oppenheimer of the De Beers diamond family, who owned Horse Chestnut, and Team Valor. He owns pieces of most of his horses.

So far, he’s won with one U.S. starter – South African Horse of the Year Horse Chestnutin the grade III Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park in 2000. De Kock has been second twice – with Archipenko, who ran second in the Arlington Million (gr. IT) this year, and Irridescence, runner-up of the 2007 Beverly D. Stakes (gr. IT), also at Arlington Park.

Eagle Mountain was formerly trained by Aidan O’Brien, who has the early favorite for the Turf in Soldier’s Fortune. Eagle Mountain, a son of Rock of Gibraltar, was injured in Dubai while training for the 2007 World Cup Carnival, de Kock said.

The pelvis setback brought a screeching halt to a promising career. Eagle Mountain had run second in the Vodafone Epsom Derby (Eng-I), third in the Budweiser Irish Derby (Ire-I) and was a two-time grade II winner. In his final start before being hurt, the bay was beaten a nose by Literato in Newmarket’s Emirates Airline Champion Stakes (Eng-I). He was to make his first start for de Kock in Dubai.

Though winless in three starts at 12 furlongs, de Kock said Eagle Mountain should handle the distance, especially on Santa Anita's firm ground and flat surface. “He’s got a good five-or-six months of hard work under the belt. He’s done a lot a miles. He’s ready for it.”

Regular jockey Kevin Shea accompanied de Kock to Southern California from England Oct. 20. Shea plans to stay close to the pace, de Kock said, adding, "I don't think this course will be condusive to coming from far out of it."

So far, the trainer said, he and Shea haven’t had a chance to sample much of the area’s atmosphere.

“Not yet,” the affable de Kock said. “But we will.”