Ocean Knight winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Ocean Knight winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

SV Photography

Nygaards on Right Path With Ocean Knight

Breeders of brilliant Sam F. Davis winner Ocean Knight make the grade.

When Erik and Pavla Nygaard got serious about entering the Thoroughbred business, one of the first horses they bought was a Florida-bred Stormy Atlantic  filly at the 2007 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s select 2-year-old sale. While the filly, named Ocean Goddess, earned $111,144 on the track after a purchase price of $270,000 and didn't exactly set the world afire, her first foal has certainly turned some heads.

By Curlin , Ocean Knight  is the recent winner of Tampa Bay Downs' Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 31 for Barbara Banke's Stonestreet Stables. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, the colt figures to have every chance to advance his way along the Triple Crown trail, and the Nygaard's Thor-Bred Stables have a special runner they raised to follow.

Erik Nygaard, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated engineer, moved to Wall Street to make his hay. Pavla is a non-practicing attorney. They now live in Del Mar, Calif., where this time of year Pavla leaves their house at 4-4:30 a.m. to make the drive to Santa Anita Park to oversee morning training with trainer Dan Hendricks.

The Nygaards also own the 900-acre Ocala Jockey Club near Ocala, Fla. Three-hundred of those Central Florida acres are dedicated to horses and the training there is overseen by respected horseman Benny Betts. It is where Ocean Knight got his early lessons, along with the other Thor-Bred-bred horses.

Pavla recalls Ocean Knight was "unremarkable" as a young foal. "What I mean by that is, he didn't stand out," she said. "I thought he was a nice colt but I don't recall seeing him leading the pack. He was always around the middle and very relaxed."

The pack that year included four horses bred under the Nygaard's Thor-Bred Stables name and four under the Thor-Bred II banner. The distinction is Thor-Bred horses are foals out of horses the Nygaards raced and Thor-Bred II horses are out of mares purchased at sales.

Ocean Goddess, bred by the late Arthur I. Appleton, held a lot of promise on the track under the care of trainer Billy Turner Jr. She "had a great attitude, speed, and determination," according to Pavla, and the filly broke her maiden at first asking—but overextended her shoulder in her second race after clipping heels with a rival. Ocean Goddess won three of 13 starts and tried stakes company four times without success.

Several factors were considered in picking the right stallion for Ocean Goddess' first trip to the breeding shed. Erik developed a database for pedigrees. The couple also spoke with pedigree analyst Les Brinsfield and picked the brain of Drew Nardiello at Chesapeake Farm near Lexington, and Pavla looked at stallions with Pat Turner, Billy's wife.

"We're one of those people who are the jack of all trades and the masters of none," Pavla said with a laugh regarding their pedigree selection process. "We looked at Curlin, looked into his eye, and the match seemed to be the right thing."

The result was Ocean Knight, who may have been "unremarkable" early on, but Betts tipped bloodstock agent John Moynihan to the colt's progress while in training on the farm.

"Benny told us about him and we had our eye on him," Moynihan said.

Consigned to the OBS March sale through Florida horseman Nick de Meric, Ocean Knight worked a quarter mile in the under tack show in a bullet :20 3/5—but his vet report wasn't perfect. The Nygaards, perhaps with some seller's remorse, wanted to stay in for a piece if they could.

"We saw a good colt," Pavla said. "Our feeling was, if people don't want him and want to pay fully for him, we'd be more than happy to go in with somebody. As a breeding entity we need to take some money off the table when we can. It was a heart-wrenching decision."

Banke, who came back to de Meric's barn several times at OBS, took Ocean Knight home for $320,000.

"I give credit to John Moynihan and Barbara Banke for being sophisticated enough to look past a few issues and keep their eye on the greater good," de Meric said. "Ocean Knight is drop-dead gorgeous...once you get past his head. He's got a plain ol' head with a knot right between his eyes but after that he's streamlined; balanced. He has a smooth top line and a nice hip and shoulder and the movement to go along with it."

At the Stonestreet training center Ocean Knight put in one of the fastest works ever recorded there, according to Moynihan. He progressed with McLaughlin to a 4 1/4-length maiden win at first asking at Aqueduct Racetrack before the victory in the Sam F. Davis.

The graded stakes win is a satisfying one for the Nygaards, part of the journey that is a "long road" according to Pavla.

"Since buying the mare seven years ago we realize just how many people it takes to do every thing right," she said. "There have been so many people involved in picking the mare, training the mare, taking the care of the mare—Drew Nardiello does a tremendous job. He is a tremendous horseman. And there are the people picking the pedigrees; looking over the stallions, and helping us pick out who to breed to."

They are on the right path.

"The Nygaards are top-notch people and deserve credit for doing right by their horses," de Meric said. "They are motivated to give their horses the best they can and they are being rewarded for that."

Ocean Knight
Photo: SV Photography
Ocean Knight after winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes.