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Trainer Mike de Kock considering future in wake of bitter stable staff strike

Mike de Kock has been affected by the events of the grooms' strike in South Africa to such an extent he is planning to reduce his string by 40 per cent and is contemplating whether he wishes to continue training.

The globally successful trainer wrote a lengthy comment on the situation on his website on Sunday, in which he questioned the accusations he and other trainers have faced, and whether the episode could lead to him ending his training career.

"My stable and my family have just experienced three potentially life-changing days," De Kock said. "To sit in a meeting with grooms whilst being called a racist who beats his grooms up 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."

He added: "The experience of the last few days and the effects 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 will be reducing my string by 40 per cent. 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 South African racing. Where we go from here remains to be seen."

Wage negotiations between trainers and stable staff have played out against a backdrop of violent protests, although trainers in Johannesburg are optimistic an agreement will be reached and, in turn, normality restored.

The first time the rest of South Africa knew there were problems was on May 20, when protest action by staff prevented horses leaving the Randjesfontein Training Centre for that day’s meeting at Turffontein. Forty-four horses had to be scratched.

By last Thursday the situation had become so bad the day’s meeting at the Vaal (where there is also a training centre) had to be abandoned.

The Randjesfontein trainers have issued a lengthy press release outlining a sequence of events starting last Wednesday, when wage negotiations began between trainers and staff. The latter were supported by the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) political party.

The EFF and stable staff staged a walkout, and a strike – considered illegal by the trainers – started. Certain trainers, staff, farriers and equine physiotherapists in effect became hostages as nobody was allowed in or out of the training centre.

According to the press release “grooms armed themselves and started destroying property”, while assistant trainers “were threatened with death if they refused to join the strike”.

The strikers also threatened to open the barns and let the horses loose. The trainers themselves, and those left of their staff, fed and watered all the horses.

At 3am on Thursday "militant members of the grooms and the EFF breached the non-existent security entrances and came into the stable area, physically smashing doors down and pulling assistant trainers from their rooms. They were dragged to the entrances where the gatherings had started".

Talks were resumed shortly after 7am, but the trainers’ press release added: "The negotiation process took place under a constant threat of violence. If the demands were not met the grooms/EFF threatened that there would be damage to property, including the burning of stables and offices – and of transportation trucks should they arrive to pick up horses."

The trainers conceded that some of their number have not been paying a basically acceptable minimum wage, but that the majority have, with some paying a fair bit more.

The minimum wage in South Africa, where unemployment is high at 26.7 per cent, is R3,500 (£196/€223) a month for a 40-hour week and R3,900 (£218/€248) a month for a 45-hour one. The grooms demanded R14,000 (£784/€892) a month, which the trainers say is "an unrealistic figure which will lead to the closure of the racing industry".

Agreement has been reached on R1,000 (£56/€64) a week "as the absolute minimum wage that a groom will receive”, plus one per cent of stakes won by horses that he or she – although most of the grooms are male – looks after.

During the discussions on Thursday, De Kock complained of chest pains, an ambulance was called and he was taken to a nearby clinic for tests. 

He added: "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 South Africa.

"The recently successful TBA sales was mostly propped up by foreign money. Do these international, racing loving owners need this kind of aggravation?

"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 ten to 20 per cent.There will be fewer licensed trainers, 20 per cent 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."

Sunday’s meeting at Turffontein (about 25 miles away) went ahead as planned. Stable staff at other training centres – notably Milnerton and Philippi in Cape Town and Summerveld in Durban – are understandably keen for higher wages, but there has been no repeat of the Johannesburg troubles.

 

 

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