03/27/2007 12:00AM

South Africa's version of Todd Pletcher

Frank Sorge/Horsephotos
Michael de Kock, on the Nad Al Sheba track Tuesday, has six horses on the World Cup program.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Michael de Kock, dressed in black shorts and black warm-up jersey, came ambling across his training yard Monday through a blanket of late afternoon Dubai heat. Balding, gone a bit thick in the waist, de Kock could have been a suburban dad thinking about firing up the grill. Closer up, de Kock's bright eyes crackle. They see things in horses others don't.

For example, de Kock's bloodstock shopping trip to South America last spring landed a colt named Asiatic Boy.

"We went to buy a horse named Husson," de Kock, 43, recounted. "He raced, and he got given a hiding just to beat his stablemate. Husson's owner got greedy in selling him, and we got the other horse for one-quarter the price."

Husson hasn't raced since that narrow win last May in the Group 1 Gran Criterium, a major Argentine 2-year-old stakes, but Asiatic Boy, who was just supposed to be Husson's pacesetter that day, has started looking like a star, winning three stakes this winter in Dubai by a combined distance of more than 16 lengths.

"He's still got to prove it to me against proper company," de Kock said. "Not to demean the horses he's run against so far. If he can win Saturday, he's right up there with the best I've trained."

Saturday is Dubai World Cup Night, and all eyes will be on Asiatic Boy in the UAE Derby, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race de Kock won in 2003 with Victory Moon, who finished third the next year in the World Cup. But de Kock has more going than just the one horse. Akin in South Africa to someone like Todd Pletcher in the U.S., de Kock has planned a Pletcher-like assault on the World Cup card. Besides Asiatic Boy, he has Mullins Bay for the Godolphin Mile, Oracle West in the Sheema Classic, and a threesome for the Dubai Duty Free - Kapil, Bad Girl Runs, and Irridescence. Irridescence has American owners, Team Valor, and de Kock himself considered starting a U.S. string three years ago. That was one of the few cliffs he declined to scale in a 20-some year training career that has branched from Johannesburg, South Africa, all over the world.

"I wanted to come, but it wasn't made easy for us - a lot of rigamarole with the horses and my staff," de Kock said. "I like challenges, but there was too much red tape."

Instead, de Kock has about 20 horses in Dubai - there are 150 more back in South Africa. His success has attracted Dubai owners, too: Sheikh Mohd bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family, owns Asiatic Boy.

"I have more buying power," de Kock said. "That could move things to a different level."

De Kock doesn't hesitate to tweak strategy and tactics. Big picture, he saw the opportunity in international racing and started sending his top horses to race in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., where Horse Chestnut, one of South Africa's all-time greats, won one start at Gulfstream Park in the winter of 2000 before an injury forced his retirement.

De Kock also had great success with the brilliant Zimbabwe-bred mare Ipi Tombe, whom he brought to Dubai in 2003 to win the Duty Free on World Cup Night. Ipi Tombe was sold to American interests that included Team Valor after that race, and won the Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill Downs in her U.S. debut before being injured and retired with a career record of 12 wins from 14 starts.

"Every time you travel, you learn," he said. "We're not used to harder [dirt] tracks like the ones in Dubai, so we started using treadmills and whirlpools to help keep horses fit."

Changes in training regimen pale compared to changes at home for de Kock, who grew up in South Africa's apartheid era, witnessing firsthand the country's fracturing during two years of compulsory military service. Other African nations moved violently away from white colonialist rule, but South Africa has held together - as has horse racing there.

"Racing did go through a series of bad steps," de Kock said. "It had been seen as a white elitist institution, but I think it's changed."

Although it's only a seven-hour flight from Johannesburg to Dubai, de Kock chose to ship Asiatic Boy from Argentina to France, where he was turned out in advance of his winter campaign here.

Asiatic Boy, a 4-year-old on Northern Hemisphere time, already has shown the speed on dirt so prized in American racing, and would seem to be a candidate for a trip to the States at some point. But de Kock said he believes the colt could be at least as good on turf, where he made two of his three starts last season, and even should he impressively win the UAE Derby, Asiatic Boy could wind up in Europe later this summer. But be sure of one thing: With de Kock, all options will be on the table.