Veterans Day: Love, War, and a Derby Dream

Several years ago during Kentucky Derby week, I wrote a small segment in my column about Iraqi War veteran Chris Simonds and his special Derby dream. To honor Simonds, who was awarded the Purple Heart, and all veterans, I felt this was the perfect time to expand, update and re-tell Simonds’ story, as well as the effect American Pharoah had on him and his family, and give it its own much-deserved space.

Simonds had a lifelong dream of going to the Kentucky Derby with his grandfather, Frank Clayton, a Korean War veteran, who used to take him to Los Alamitos when he was a kid and place $2 bets for his grandson.

For his 18th birthday present, Frank took Chris back to Los Alamitos and gave him $50 to bet legally for first time. Chris and Frank were often accompanied to the track by Frank’s friend, Rod Lowe, and all three became very close during their travels to Los Alamitos and visits to Rod’s Quarter-Horse ranch.

Chris’ sister, Lisa Hill, said, “Through these experiences, a dream was born that the three of them would one day go to the Kentucky Derby, but they would only do it when they could go in style and live the full week of Derby experiences. This included tours of the racetracks, visits to the finest stud farms in the world, and ultimately tickets with a view of the Derby itself.”

Not long before Chris was deployed to Iraq, he promised his grandfather that he would return safely so they could finally attend the Kentucky Derby and fulfill their dream.

“It’s a dream that was some 12 to 14 years in the making, and when we did it, we wanted to do it right and go the whole nine yards,” Chris said. “But then came something that put a wrinkle in the plans.”

It actually was a lot more than a wrinkle.

Five and a half weeks into his deployment, a sniper put a 7.62 bullet into Chris’s back. According to Lisa, “He was flung forward face first into the dirt and noticed large amounts of blood pouring out of his mouth. An ambush was underway with an enemy machine gun opening fire. A combat medic dragged him to safety. He couldn’t breathe and felt awfully cold even though the temperature was 120-plus degrees. He lost consciousness nine times and began talking to God. He remembers thinking he had let his grandfather down.”

The medic who dragged Chris to safety was John Robert “Doc” Holt Jr., who years later still has a profound effect on his life and serves as a constant reminder just how fortunate Chris was in being able to live a full and wonderful life and start a beautiful family. There were others in his platoon who helped save Chris’s life and he will never forget any of them.

Chris made a full recovery and was awarded the Purple Heart. In 2012, for his 30th birthday, he decided it was the right year to finally live his and his grandfather’s dream.

“With some savings, the generosity of many family members and friends, and help from Sita World Tours and Premiere Sports Travel, Chris and his grandfather, and Rod and are finally living their Kentucky Derby dream,” Lisa said at the time.

During Derby Week of 2012, Chris said of the experience: “This year’s Derby field is the most talented and well-bred in years, and I felt, ‘This has to be the year.’ Since day one of the trip I’ve probably slept a total of two hours I’ve been so excited. We visited Adena Springs, Hurstland Farm, and Old Friends, and on Wednesday we’re attending “Dawn at the Downs,” having breakfast on Millionaires Row, and then going to the Kentucky Horse Park to see Cigar and the other horses there, and then on to Three Chimneys. The only disappointment was that my grandfather really wanted to see Barbaro’s sire, Dynaformer, but, unfortunately, he died the other day, on Barbaro’s birthday. But this trip has already been so wonderful, and if it ended today it would still be wonderful.”

Chris still fondly remembers the warm hospitality they received at Hurstland Farm. “We really enjoyed our time with Alfred Nuckols at Hurstland Farm.” He said. “He was so generous with his time and we were so grateful. I’ve been so happy to see his success since.”

Standing at Churchill Downs in the shadow of the Twin Spires, Chris could only think back to his brush with death and simply say, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. And that’s what makes this dream all the more special.”

Chris realizes how lucky he was in not only escaping death on the streets of Ramadi, but escaping the demons that remain embedded in so many veterans after returning home. In 2009, just a few days before Christmas, Doc Holt took his own life, another of the many post-war victims who could not deal with the horrific memories of the past and were unable to adjust to life back home.

“I have been fortunate enough to visit him at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio a few times to pay my respects,” Chris said. “We recently lost another former platoon member to suicide and it's just another reminder of the toll combat takes on us, and that we could be years removed from the battlefield, but a battle continues on inside. I pay tribute to each soldier on the mission who played a very important part in getting me to safety. I make it a point to recognize them each year. I am not the hero, I was the one who got wounded and it is they who are my heroes, as I wouldn't be alive without them.”

In 2012, Chris began dating Chelsea Marie West, whose father had a business across the street from Chris’s father. They both had attended the University of San Diego, but didn’t know each other at the time, for which Chris is thankful, considering he was a bit wild in those days, having spent five years in an all boys military school through high school. After dating for a month, Chris took Chelsea to Santa Anita’s Clocker’s Corner one morning during Breeders Cup week, visiting Dick Mandella and Beholder, and a bond was formed between them through Chris’s love and passion for horse racing.

Chris and Chelsea moved to Fountain Hill, Arizona, in the hills above Scottsdale, in early 2013 to start a new life together. In September of that year, they eloped to Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii and were married on September 12. On January 30, 2015 at 8:34 a.m. they welcomed to the world their beautiful daughter Gentry Rose.

“Right now I am in a very good place in life,” Chris said. “I work in the Pharmacy Benefit Management industry for a great company, CVS Health. I participate in our company's veterans Colleague Resource Group named VALOR where we help newly hired veterans make the transition to our company and actively recruit veterans for job openings, which has been a way of giving back.

“I haven’t been able to visit with my grandfather and Rod nearly as much as I would like. My place of Zen is at Rod's farm in Grants Pass Oregon, where my grandpa lives only a few miles away in Rogue River. In 2013, Rod brought me and my grandfather in on a Quarter Horse he bred named Ocean Beaches. One of the happiest I’ve seen my grandpa since the Kentucky Derby is when he got his owner’s license at Los Alamitos. Ocean Beaches gave us some thrills in her 2-year-old-year when she won first time out, and second out qualifies for the rich Oregon-bred Futurity. She got wiped out at the start of the Baxter Andruss Futurity, but the  journey is something we were so grateful for and for Rod bringing us in. Horses are expensive; so are babies and right now the budget only calls for a baby, but one day soon I hope Rod, grandpa and myself get to experience it again.”

If there is another thing Chris and his grandfather are grateful for it is, like so many others, finally getting to witness a Triple Crown winner.

“This year was special for any fan of racing, and after American Pharaoh crossed the finish line in the Belmont, I called my grandpa to share in the moment,” Chris said. “Here was a Marine, a Korean War Veteran with two Purple Hearts bawling his eyes out, unable to have a conversation. That's how special American Pharoah was to all of us and we are so grateful to the Zayats, to Baffert, to Jimmy Barnes and to the media for all the wonderful stories. My grandpa has said his new bucket list includes the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita and visiting American Pharaoh at Ashford stud. He wants Gentry to be there and wants to do it in 2016. So that's the goal and we'll do our best to make it happen.”

Chris counts his blessings every day. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful little girl, a job he loves, and a lifetime of family bonding in his main passion, horse racing. And most of all he has his physical and mental health. He realizes in ways most others can’t just how precious and fragile those are.

“I am very fortunate my injuries haven’t worsened, and I like to think I am as healthy as I can be given the injuries,” Chris said. “I can hold my daughter, pick her up and play with her and I know there are so many others who cannot due to their injuries. It has been especially painful these last few years to see the ISIS flag flying around the streets of Ramadi where we had sacrificed so much. That really hurt, but I guess this is the natural progression of history, so all we can do is see where we are in another decade.”

Wherever the country is, Chris Simonds has at least found happiness in all aspects of life, thanks to the love of family and in a smaller way to his love of horses. But most of all, thanks to one man far less fortunate who saved another’s life, but was unable to save his own.

Chris Simonds, his grandfather Frank Clayton, and Rod Lowe at Santa Anita

Chris and Chelsea elope to Hawaii

Chris's life is complete with the birth of Gentry Rose

Family portrait

Remembering someone very special

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