LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Major races in faraway places always fascinated Mike de Kock, who grew up in South Africa dreaming of training thoroughbreds and traveling the world. One event held by far the most foreign intrigue for him.
"The Kentucky Derby was always the race I stayed up at night to watch," he said, "and I was in awe of what took place there."
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De Kock, 51, has more than 100 Grade I stakes wins on four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. "It's like a golfer wanting to play the majors," he said.
Until this spring, he never thought seriously about competing in the Derby. Yet he's here with Mubtaahij, the mystery horse of Saturday's race, which he still finds hard to believe.
"Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd have a European-bred good enough to be one of the 20 runners in the Kentucky Derby," de Kock said Tuesday. "To me, the words 'huge' and 'massive' aren't enough."
The Derby's 141-year history is filled with bizarre tales, and the saga of Mubtaahij is right up there.
The Irish-bred with a South African trainer and a Belgian jockey (Christophe Soumillon) was bought in France by a guy from Dubai (Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum).
If Mubtaahij hadn't run poorly on turf in his first two races last fall in England, he wouldn't have been switched to dirt. After the 2-year-old beat older horses in Dubai next time on the main track, de Kock kept him there.
"I figured if he could do that, he can't be that bad," de Kock said. "So moving to dirt was just blind luck."
Ask how to pronounce Mubtaahij, which means "cheery" or "elated" in Arabic, and you get many answers. According to Google Translate, it's MOO-tah. To de Kock, admittedly no linguist, it's MOOP-tah-eedge. On his prolific @Mubtaahij Twitter account, the horse tweeted, "Sounds like MOOB-tah-heege."
Mubtaahij earned his Derby trip March 28 with an eight-length runaway in the 13/16 mile United Emirates Derby. "Before that, it was a pipe dream, but the way he won the UAE Derby, it gave us the confidence to try it," de Kock said. "When Christophe got off the horse, he said, 'We must take our chances.'"
The decision launched a 24-hour journey of three legs for this four-legged citizen of the world. He lost weight on his odyssey from Dubai to Amsterdam to Chicago, and equine jet lag convinced de Kock to leave Mubtaahij at Arlington Racecourse for a few extra days. He's bounced back well at Churchill Downs.
"He's quite a character and doesn't get fazed by much," de Kock said. "He's fit, and fitness is important in all athletics. You never see the fat kid win the egg and spoon race."
Want more uniqueness? Mubtaahij will be the first Derby runner in 10 years to race without the anti-bleeding drug Lasix. "He's not a bleeder, so he doesn't need it," de Kock said.
He trains without shoes, and maybe going barefoot makes tweeting easier. He has a new diet because his feed isn't registered with the Food and Drug Administration. "He's eating up well and keeping his head in the manger," de Kock said.
With American Pharoah and Dortmund leading a very deep and talented field, de Kock wonders about his timing.
"I probably picked the worst year ever to try to run in the Kentucky Derby," he said. "But if he can deal with the first [quarter-mile] of frenzy, I think he'll be all right. I'm hoping he can lay off the pace, and then Christophe can ride for luck and see what happens."