Cup of Coffee: For CHuck

“For those that hadn’t heard I have been dealing with some unexpected, yet major health issues…For those that have reached out, I thank you sincerely as it means a lot.”

That was a post from Chuck Simon, former trainer, backstretch stalwart and loyal reader of The Special, earlier in the week.  

Chuck, Saratoga wasn’t the same without you. I kept looking for your big, beautiful bald head and that bellowing voice.

“Remember that time you wrote about my first Saratoga win…”

Do I. 

Published in Saratoga Days. 1999. (Edited for improvement. Hey, I was young).

As The Knight Sky went three clear in the seventh, I wondered about his connections. I knew the jockey, Robby Albarado, who rode here last year and does well wherever he goes – but the trainer, Chuck Simon? Looking down the race’s program, typical headline trainers Stanley Hough, Todd Pletcher, Rusty Arnold, Mike Hushion…Chuck Simon. Sounds like a shortstop for the Texas Rangers.

I walked down to the winner’s circle. 

And found out I know Chuck Simon. He’s Allen Jerkens’ assistant trainer. He’s the tall guy with the shaved head on the right side of Kelly Kip and Wagon Limit and all Jerkens’ horses. I’ve seen him for years, never spoken to him; intimidating fellow, really. Like most of the world, until you meet him. 

Here’s Chuck Simon and his people. Orlando, the exercise rider gives Simon a slap. “My man Chuck, put it to ‘em.” Dave the hotwalker congratulates him. Carlos, who walks hots for John Hertler and checks hand stamps, grabs Simon’s hand in a half-the-arm shake.

Not a tie in sight, not a boxholder to be found – this was one of the little people gone big. This was the bat boy swinging for the fences. Simon just smiled like he didn’t know what happened. 

Chuck, you just won your first race at Saratoga on opening day.  You’re the local boy who came home to with a 35-1 shot over a Dogwood/Pletcher chalk. Chuck, you just made The Chief proud. 

“I’m relieved. You look at the Racing Form and see every big trainer, every big jockey and every big horse. It’s a little intimidating,” said the 32-year-old who went on his own in May when Ken and Sarah Ramsey gave him a barn full of horses. “Now you make the decisions instead of the suggestions. This was a good decision.”

The Knight Sky was making his turf debut. Simon made that decision after accounting for the horse’s sire, Sky Classic. That’s what trainers are paid to do, like stockbrokers. They need to produce for their client using knowledge and intuition. They make their living on commission but have to put up their own capital most of the time. After watching The Knight Sky cover the grass, you could see it was a perfect decision with plenty of commission in the future. 

Simon, who went to high school in Saratoga and lived in Ballston Lake, looked off in disbelief as he was interviewed. Another of his people gave him a high five and a smile. I asked Simon who the guy was and he said, “Oh, he works in the spit box.” That’s where Simon would go with Jerkens’ horses. That’s where assistants go. Simon’s assistant was on his way there with The Knight Sky. Simon made that trek with The Chief’s horses for four years – and loved every step.

“It’s the best assistant trainer job in the world. I got the job by telling him he needed me. He asked me why I wanted to work for him (and not for a glitzy operation). I told him I wanted to be a horse trainer, not a movie star. He liked that,” Simon said. “He treats you like a man. He wants you to learn on our own. Watch him and you will learn. He told me, ‘You have got to know what’s wrong with a horse before everyone, before the vet. You know how much they eat. Where they stand in the stall. How they travel.’ ”

Jerkens is a legend around the racetrack. He is known for his work ethic, will to succeed and his attention to detail. Not the prettiest shedrow on the grounds but his horses come first. 

Simon couldn’t say enough about Jerkens and, in so doing, about horsemanship.

“One trait I inherited from him is being self-critical, just trying to do the right thing all the time, sometimes you’ll overdo it,” Simon said. “He told me when I left, ‘Use your head. Do what you think is right. And pay attention to the horse.’ ”

As soon as we stopped talking, Simon was on his way to the barn he used to call home to see his old boss.

“He’ll be as happy as I am,” Simon said. “He treats me like one of his sons. He’ll make little suggestions, ‘You might want to try…’ He’s 40 years older than me and I can’t keep up with the man. He never rests. He’s one of those guys who cares so much it will drive him crazy. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy.”

The way Simon talked and the way The Knight Sky ran, there might be two of them. 

Read The Saratoga Special at the Belmont Racing Festival.