03/26/2004 12:00AM

U.S. racing calls to South African


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Michael de Kock, the South African trainer who developed Horse Chestnut, Ipi Tombe, and Victory Moon, spent a short time at Gulfstream Park in the winter of 1999-2000, and it left him wanting to do more in the United States.

But the logistics of leaving an established base in South Africa have prevented a move - at least so far.

With a stable that annually contends for the South African trainer's championship, de Kock said it would be difficult to drop everything and move to the United States. The lengthy trans-Atlantic commute, he added, makes it impossible to operate responsibly in both hemispheres. But, the temptation is very strong.

"I suppose I've go to do it before I get too old," he said. "I'm very keen to give American racing a try. I'm seriously thinking about it."

De Kock, 40, won the 2000 Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park with Horse Chestnut, the winner of the South African Triple Crown and that country's horse of the year. Horse Chestnut was a candidate for the 2000 Donn Handicap but was injured two weeks after the Broward. Horse Chestnut stands at stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

Although Horse Chestnut gave de Kock his first success in the United States, the trainer's reputation has been enhanced over the last year, largely though his success in Dubai.

Last spring, on the undercard of the 2003 Dubai World Cup, de Kock won the $2 million Dubai Duty Free with Ipi Tombe and the $2 million UAE Derby with Victory Moon. De Kock split his stable last fall, leaving most of the runners in South Africa and sending a top team to Dubai. This winter, the Dubai stable was outstanding, winning four stakes from Jan. 29 to March 6.

On Saturday, de Kock had four runners on the 2004 World Cup program - Lundy's Liability in the $2 million UAE Derby, Right Approach and Surveyor in the $2 million Duty Free on turf, and Victory Moon in the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

De Kock said that the World Cup would be a test of Victory Moon's ability against top dirt horses like Pleasantly Perfect and Medgalia d'Oro.

"I'd like to give him a chance in the States," de Kock said. "I'd like to compare him to the other American horses, and it would be good if he could win a nice race in America."

De Kock, who grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, does not come from a racing background.

"I grew up next to a racetrack and always had the interest," he said. "A son of one of the leading trainers at the time was at school with me. I started off as a stable employee."

During two years of service in the South African army, de Kock served as a riding instructor. From there, he continued his involvement with horses until he launched his own stable.

Now, de Kock said, he has 120 horses, all bred in the Southern Hemisphere. The stable consists of imports from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand. Unlike North American buyers, who seem to prefer race-ready horses from Argentina and Brazil, de Kock buys yearlings in South America.

His South African stable is based at two sites, which keeps travel to a minimum and allows him to be close to his wife and two children.

During the time that Horse Chestnut was based in Florida, de Kock was traveling home every three weeks on a 17-hour plane flight.

"I was back and forth from South Africa," he said. "The traveling killed me."

But the brief trip to America was an eye-opener and led de Kock to alter some of his training methods, particularly through feeding programs. "I've learned a lot from all of it," he said. "American trainers are very hands-on."

The fact that his former horses Ipi Tombe and Spook Express were stakes winners in the United States has strengthened his interest in a possible move. The idea is firm, but no specific time has been discussed.

De Kock said he would need financial backing and ample time, and that he would probably take a group of South African horses to help establish the stable.

"I would do it properly," he said. "I don't think you can do justice to both places. I'm lucky to have a good team while I'm in Dubai, but that's only for three or four months of the year.

"You'd have to start properly. You'll need the backing. You can't go in sucking your thumb."