COMMENT | 'Being threatened with death and harm leaves a bitter taste'

25 June 2018 - 09:09
By Mike De Kock
Mike de Kock at Blue Stables, Dubai.
Image: Mike de Kock at Blue Stables, Dubai.

A strike by grooms at the North Rand Training Centre in Randjesfontein‚ Midrand‚ last week has left South Africa's top horse racing trainer Mike de Kock considering his future in the business.

The strike‚ in which the EFF was involved‚ was characterised by threats of physical harm to the trainers at the centre‚ which houses about 1‚000 horses.

De Kock describes his emotions about the protest here:

My stable and my family have just experienced three potentially life-changing days. The grooms’ strike at Randjesfontein has left us contemplating the future.

I’d like to believe that we as a family and as a stable have been the most pro-active in the country at improving the lot of our grooms.

Over the last 15 years I have been sending grooms around the world to places like the US‚ the UK‚ Dubai‚ Singapore‚ Australia and Hong Kong. Every year I employ a group of South African grooms in the UAE for four or five months. They live in the Sheraton Hotel with me and get paid a substantial wage as well as still getting their SA wages. They also receive massive bonuses of between R20‚000 and R100‚000 depending on how on how good the season’s been.

I’ve seen these grooms improve their lifestyles‚ buy houses and cars‚ educate their children and uplift their families.

Admittedly only a select few of my top grooms have travelled abroad‚ but many of the ones at home have earned good wages and have also benefited from the success in which they’ve played a part.

The key to this sort of remuneration is stakes. Dubai stakes speak for themselves. One can charge a proper fee and race for proper stakes. Take out are as follows: Trainer 10%; Jockey 10% and most notably the stable (grooms and all stable staff) share 5%. The key to a strong racing industry is stakes!

Apart from Dubai look at all of Australia‚ Hong Kong Singapore and the USA. In the UK‚ day to day stakes are not great but big races are very good and the value of horses is off the charts. SA owners should be paying more but how does one justify that when stakes have stagnated like they have here?

We’ve done many more things to better the plight of our grooms.

My wife Diane’s Aids programme has saved many lives.

We treat our grooms with respect‚ they receive perks and bonuses.

Some of our owners are amongst the most generous people I know‚ they have contributed with added bonuses of their own.

To sit in a meeting with grooms whilst being called a racist who beats his grooms up‚ left a bitter taste in my mouth and sent my blood pressure through the roof.

To have been confronted by 300 weapon-wielding‚ threatening grooms left a bitter taste in my mouth.

When members of my family‚ staff and horses are threatened with death and harm it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. From now on‚ we’ll be living in fear and uncertainty every day.

(During the wildcat strike) I saw some trainers feed and water up to 100/150 horses with little or no help. All of these guys are in the training profession because they love horses‚ to start. Another bitter taste left in the aftermath.

I am more sympathetic than most when it comes to grooms’ affairs‚ I’ve seen them uplift themselves and I’ve taken pride from it.

Recently I gave R5‚000 to a groom who came to me when his child was kidnapped‚ I paid the ransom money and we never saw him for two months. The same groom sat on the groom’s committee/EFF and turned on me‚ threatening violence. Again‚ this left a bitter taste in my mouth.

My stable employs 80 grooms‚ and I am personally one of the biggest racehorse owners in South Africa. I have made a long and positive contribution to South African racing and the lives of many grooms.

The experience of the last few days and the affects it had on my own and my family’s lives‚ coupled with surprise‚ disappointment and disbelief‚ has brought me to a stage where I have to say that Mike de Kock racing is now seriously considering our position in South African racing.

I am thinking of the implications‚ which include unemployment of at least 100 people involved with my stable; the giving up of dozens of racehorses‚ stallion shares and broodmares; the international ramifications with our number of big overseas owners and the negative publicity it will create and the investment lost to SA. The recently successful TBA (thoroughbred breeders association) sales was mostly propped up by foreign money. Do these international‚ racing loving owners need this kind of aggravation?

I am not sure if these factors even matter anymore. It’s enough having to deal with the Jockey Club and Racing administrators who haven’t made life easy. The grooms issue has aggravated matters to a level where Team De Kock feels like turning things up. I am asking myself‚ do we really need this?

South African racing is in for a rude awakening.

I predict that in the next two years the number of horses in training will be reduced by 10-20%.

There will be fewer licensed trainers‚ 20% or more.

Overseas investments will decrease‚ local and overseas owners do not want to be associated with violence and aggression.

Racing is a hobby and a sport for many. When it becomes unpleasant‚ people will simply turn elsewhere.

Reduced figures all round means that hundreds of grooms are on the verge of losing their jobs.

I fully recognise the right to protest. I am fully aware that all is not right with our grooms. I am fully committed to correct that - but not under the threat of violence.

Personally‚ I will be reducing my string by 40%. At this stage of my life I’ve been wanting to train the most beautiful animals and really enjoy it along with my son‚ but the situation racing is in has left me wondering why I do it and questioning my own loyalty to SA racing.

Where we go from here remains to be seen.