Del Mar couple positioned for pre-eminence in thoroughbred circles

Pavla and Erik Nygaard are poised to be a significant presence in the world of thoroughbred horse racing. They now own 60 thoroughbreds — 20 in Florida, 20 in Kentucky, and 20 in Southern California — and oversee this operation from a hilltop home in Del Mar.

Irish Surf, the Nygaards’ star, trained by Dan Hendricks, a 4-year-old colt sired by Giant’s Causeway, tackles the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup on Thanksgiving Day.

He won the Cougar II here last summer, while setting a track record at a mile and a half. He ran fifth in the Pacific Classic at a mile and a quarter. On Oct. 31, he placed in the Las Vegas Marathon, a $200,000 mile-and-three-quarters event run before the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita.

Irish Surf has demonstrated that he prefers long distances. And he doesn’t sulk when he doesn’t win.

“We used to joke that he has such a high opinion of himself, he couldn’t care less what actually happens in the race,” said Pavla.

“At the finish line, he continues on until he passes all the other horses, so he can say to himself, ‘I beat you.’ He’s really hard to pull up.” Erik said.

Although relatively new to the sport, Pavla and Erik are deeply involved as owners.

Pavla is a hands-on Girl Friday, doing whatever needs to get done. She keeps in contact with two trainers, and farm managers at Chesapeake in Lexington, Ky., on their farm in Florida, and at Ballena Vista Farm in Ramona. She is constantly learning and trying out her ideas on Hendricks, her patient trainer.

She was born in Czechoslovakia in the Moravian area to two university professors. Her father was a known dissident and a signatory of the Charter of 77 during the Prague Spring (1968).

In eighth grade, Pavla made an innocent joke about the Russians and was marked as a discipline problem at her school.

Her mother believed Pavla was growing up under a shadow and wouldn’t have a chance for advanced education or a meaningful job because of her background if they didn’t leave Czechoslovakia.

When Pavla was 16 they gained permission to visit Yugoslavia, and grasped the opportunity to escape through the mountains to Austria (a reverse “Sound of Music,” said Pavla). They parked their car and started walking their dog — to appear as “two dumb blond women getting lost during a summer hike.”

After seven hours, they made it down over rough terrain and a perilous cliff. An Austrian border guard took them to a police station to apply for asylum.

After two or three days at the jail (“It seemed like an eternity”), and five months in a refugee camp, they were accepted by Canada. Pavla completed her education and worked in Vancouver, B.C., where her mother still lives.

Erik grew up in Michigan, graduated from MIT, worked for TRW as a rocket scientist designing microprocessors for navigation, then went into finance on Wall Street for 21 years.

Erik and Pavla met online “before it was fashionable.”

As Erik retired from finance, he pursued a real estate opportunity in Florida. But in order to purchase a vacant parcel, they also had to purchase the adjacent horse boarding business. Instead of selling that operation, they decided to explore what racing would hold for them.

“I enjoy researching pedigrees, racing strategies, and making breeding decisions — anything on the analytical side. This was new and exciting and full of challenges, and I was looking for challenges,” said Erik.

Erik is set on building an operation based on home-breds that will be respected in the business over the next two decades.

As good owners do, they try to keep track of horses that have raced for them. Oscar, who finished third in the Sunshine Millions Sprint in Florida, was falling through the claiming ranks. They retired him to a property in Rancho Santa Fe to give him a chance to adjust to a new career as a riding horse.

They did the same with Drift King, an unhappy and difficult horse with a serious injury that ended his racing career. He has been recovering for 18 months at the same property. He has mellowed, they said, and is on his way to becoming a happy, useful, adoptable horse.