Trainer Knott Has Potential for Big Saturday

April 21, 2023

Navy Seal handily winning an AOC at Oaklawn Feb. 25. (Coady Photography)

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—Nancy Knott’s one-horse stable has grown to two in recent months and both Sunset Paynter and Navy Seal are scheduled to run Saturday at Oaklawn.

Sunset Paynter is entered in the ninth race, the inaugural $150,000 Valley of the Vapors Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile, and top Arkansas-bred Navy Seal is entered against open company in the 12th race, a $105,000 allowance sprint for older horses.

Lightly raced Sunset Paynter will try to give Knott, 57, a former jockey turned trainer/exercise rider/groom/equine massage therapist, her first career stakes victory.

“It would be really cool,” Knott said Tuesday morning. “I’m just hoping the distance will even make her better than she is.”

Knott has already had a noteworthy 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting, going 28 years and two days between her first career training victory in Hot Springs – Budman Dude, Feb. 3, 1995 – and her second when Navy Seal toppled Arkansas-breds in a Feb. 5 allowance sprint. Knott’s horses were running under her maiden name, Steenhuis, in 1995. 

“It’s very satisfying to do it yourself,” Knott said. “You can pay close attention to every single thing, pick up everything right away. So, you’re right on top of everything. But it’s very physically demanding and you have to wait, even if you win, another four weeks, five weeks until you run again. With a big stable, it’s not as physically demanding. It’s more managing everything. You’ve got your payroll and the issues that go along with owners, insurance and everything else. All of that is not so fun.”

Knott grew up in Atlanta, fox hunting and steeple chasing, before enrolling in Sweet Briar College in 1983. Sweet Briar, a private women’s liberal arts school in Virginia, is known for its show jumping program. After two years at Sweet Briar, Knott decided to transfer to Louisiana Tech for its equine science program.

“I wanted to go the racetrack, but I didn’t even know what the racetrack was, except for watching the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown,” Knott said. “My father said I could go to the racetrack, but I had to get a degree. When I went through that program at Louisiana Tech, it’s an animal science degree with an equine specialty, but it was just like the track. You were at the barn at 5 o’clock in the morning and then you would go to classes at 8 and then you would go back and do horses up. Then I would break horses after that.”

Knott said she earned a trainer’s license through the program – she graduated in 1987 – and had an internship in Pennsylvania with soon-to-be Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Knott moved to the racetrack in the late 1980s, initially galloping horses for trainer Carl Bowman. She later worked as an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and trainers Tom Bohannan and Edward I. Kelly Jr. 

Knott, then Steenhuis, had two stints as a jockey. She rode nine races in 1992 and four in 1998, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.  

“In the morning, I was working horses great,” Knott said, recalling her early experiences as a jockey. “But in the afternoon, I didn’t feel good. I wasn’t doing the horses justice. I got my feelings hurt and it was hard to reduce. Gave it up. Thought I gave it up.”

Knott said she was working as an exercise rider/assistant for trainer Britt McGehee when she decided to make a riding comeback in 1998. Her final career mount marked her only career victory when Jondalar ($52.60) beat $17,500 claimers in a Nov. 22, 1998, sprint at Hawthorne for McGehee.

“That was my 13th race and my last race, so I went out a winner,” Knott said. “We went to New Orleans (Fair Grounds) the next winter and it was like, ‘Ride me or Julie Krone?’ It just didn’t pan out.”

Knott said she and McGehee took a small string of horses to Southern California in the summer of 1999. There, Knott said she “learned people massage” and believed those techniques could benefit horses. Knott said she traveled to Virginia to study equine massage.

“It’s weird because my life took a different direction, toward massage,” Knott said. “Like I felt I was good enough at that point to get an agent. Instead of getting an agent and continuing to ride, my life took a different path.”

Knott said massage helps a horse’s general health and can lengthen its stride because it “frees up their muscles.” Knott treats horses in their stalls. Navy Seal, for example, normally receives a massage after he works and before and after he runs. 

“The massage definitely helps him,” Knott said. “Sometimes he gets a tender back, so it definitely helps him a lot.”

In addition to Navy Seal and Sunset Paynter, Knott said she’s treated horses for trainers Tom Amoss and Mike Puhich at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting. Knott’s most famous massage subject, millionaire Grade 1 winner Cloudy’s Knight, was honored with a Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion grass horse of 2007. Cloudy’s Knight now resides on a 51-acre farm two hours west of Chicago owned by Knott and her husband of 20 years, Oaklawn starter William “Blue” Knott. 

Nancy Knott, in two training stints, has 13 career victories, according to Equibase. She had two victories in 1994 and 1995 and added 11 since she resumed training in 2015. 

“Probably four horses is the most I’ve ever had,” Knott said. “I’m definitely hands on. I do it all.”

Knott trains Sunset Paynter and Navy Seal for Chicago-based KEM Stables. KEM privately purchased Sunset Paynter following a Jan. 21 career debut victory at Golden Gate. She ran fourth in her only other start, a starter/optional claiming sprint March 25 at Oaklawn.

Navy Seal, a half-brother to Oaklawn stakes winners Weast Hill and Usual Suspect, is using Saturday’s race as a prep for the Arkansas Breeders’ Championship Stakes May 6 at Oaklawn, Knott said. The Arkansas Breeders’ Championship is for state-breds, 3 and up, at 1 1/16 miles.

FINISH LINES

First post Saturday is 12:10 p.m. (Central). … 

Mighty Mischief #2 with Ricardo Santana, Jr. riding won the $200,000 Grade III Chick Lang Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse on Saturday May 15, 2021. (Photo by Bill Denver/MJC)

Ruben Munoz, the longtime agent for jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., said in a text message late Thursday afternoon that he is reuniting with the eight-time Oaklawn riding champion April 29, start of the Churchill Downs Spring Meet. Munoz, late in the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, said he was taking a break and Matt Muzikar, the longtime agent for Tyler Gaffalione, began representing Santana in Kentucky and later New York. Jimmy Riccio, the longtime agent for Jose Ortiz, began booking mounts for Santana last fall. Munoz brought Santana, a native of Panama, to the United States in 2009. Santana began riding at Oaklawn in 2011 and captured riding titles in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021. Santana entered Friday with 720 career Oaklawn victories (No. 7 all time), including 49 this season to rank third in the standings … 

Arkansans continue to dominate the top of the Oaklawn owner’s standings. Through Sunday, Day 59 of the scheduled 68-day meeting, leader Jerry Caroom of Hot Springs had 15 victories, two more than Heath and Sheena Campbell of Benton and Ten Strike Racing (founding partners Marshall Gramm and Arkansas native Clay Sanders). Staton Flurry of Hot Springs ranked fifth with eight victories. Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, Oaklawn’s leading owner in 2021-2022, and John Hollemanof Little Rock, were tied for sixth with seven victories. Caroom is seeking his first Oaklawn owner’s title. 

@jonathanstettin such a great read! In my car reading this on my lunch break with a huge smile.

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