On Dec. 11, the 48-year-old South Florida transplant from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. sent out Cocos Cat in a five-furlong main track sprint that was originally carded for the turf. Put on the lead by jockey Paco Lopez, she faced pressure from the start and turned away a pair of challenges before opening up down the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths.
Long before the 3-year-old Wildcat Heir filly crossed the wire first, she was already a winner. The $18,000 claiming race was just her third lifetime start and first in nine months, having overcome a bout with pneumonia in the spring that nearly took her life.
"It's always great to win any race," Simon said, "but a filly like that, a tough little horse that fought off an infection that was trying to kill her, for her to come back and run as well as she did, it's amazing."
Cocos Cat debuted on the Gulfstream turf in February, breaking awkwardly and never getting involved before finishing 11th. Three weeks later, Simon claimed her for $16,000 on behalf of Richard Ciavardone out of a front-running half-length maiden victory.
"In the test barn afterward, we noticed she had grabbed her quarter really bad and she bled a lot," Simon said. "It was really nasty, so it was going to take time for it to heal before we could run her back. It was progressing fine and looking really good, until one morning."
On that May morning, Simon noticed the normally feisty Cocos Cat acting lethargic. A check of her temperature showed it to be 103, and she was immediately treated with antibiotics. When her fever persisted, she was vanned to the Palm Beach Equine Clinic near Wellington, where blood tests revealed pneumonia.
"It's about $1,000 a day to be at the clinic. They called me one day a couple weeks into it and said there was only one antibiotic left that will have any chance of working except it is really expensive," Simon said. "We know about expensive vet bills with Thoroughbreds. I was prepared for a relatively big number. It was $3,000 a day. They ended up finding it for about $400 to $450 a dose. It cost around $3,000 or $4,000 to get that into her, but that finally turned the tide and worked."
After nearly a month at the clinic, Cocos Cat was transferred back to Simon's string at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, once she was stable.
At Simon's suggestion, she was vanned to Pennsylvania to get out of the summer heat and took up residence with Bobby Mosco, another trainer Ciavardone employs.
When Ciavardone decided to send Disarm to Gulfstream for the Claiming Crown Express on Dec. 5, Florida-bred Cocos Cat came along and rejoined Simon in mid-November. She worked once over the Palm Meadows turf prior to her return.
"Bobby did most of the legwork and got her back going. He said she had been training well. We just put the finishing touches on her and it all worked out," Simon said. "She's a tough little horse and it's just nice that she made it back. Rich Ciavardone is a really good guy and he spent the money that a lot of people wouldn't have. Between training bills and vet bills and clinic bills, it was a whole lot more than $16,000. He wanted to save the horse at the very least. Rich is a big guy and a gruff guy, but he goes to the barn and feeds them carrots. It's nice to see people rewarded for doing the right thing."
Simon, 48, relocated to South Florida full-time last winter after nearly two decades on the move on the New York, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest circuits. He first came to Gulfstream in 1992 as an assistant to late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, also having worked under Tom Skiffington, Peter Ferriola and Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito before going out on his own.
"I've been coming down here a long time. Things have obviously changed a lot," Simon said. "When I first started training, I came here every year. The first year I was here I was in Gulfstream Park, barn 9. Scotty Schulhofer was on the backside of us. It was us, Scotty Schulhofer and George Handy... the two veterans and the young guy."
Simon, who had as many as 60 horses at his peak including graded stakes winners Battle Won and Sabellina, was a Gulfstream regular last winter for the first time since 2009. A classmate of trainer Todd Pletcher at the University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program, Simon's epiphany came the previous winter, when he was struggling to train and run horses after moving his string to Pennsylvania following a few lean years in Kentucky.
"You kind of underestimate how bad the winters have gotten. It's a quality of life issue, not just a business issue," Simon said. "You can't really train like you want to, and races are getting canceled. You kind of train with one hand behind your back. It is cold, it's damp, it's miserable. It gets dark at 3:30 in the afternoon. You watch TV and you see the races at Gulfstream and you get jealous. You say, 'Wow, what am I doing here?'
"I think 2013 was really the tipping point. We didn't hardly train half of December, almost the whole month of January, half of February into March and it set us back. I only had four or five starts going into (last) May. The size of my stable, I own a piece of a lot of horses and it's predicated on earning money in races. When you go four or five months without much earnings, it strangles you."
Assisted by former jockey Susan Ditter, Simon had four wins, four seconds and a third from 20 starts at the 2014-15 Championship Meet. He has had three starters thus far this winter including Charge, a former steeplechaser who he saddled to a win on the flat last Dec. 19.
"I love it. I'm here to stay. I don't really want to go anywhere anymore," Simon said. "The program that they've put together is really good. It's a strong program and it's getting better, and the numbers bear that out. The handle is going up and the purses are going up. There's really not a better year-round spot to be in my opinion.
"You have turf all year, you have a facility like Gulfstream which is a place to race and a great place to bring owners. The racing itself is getting stronger," he added. "Palm Meadows is just the best facility you can train at on a year-round basis. It's a great track and we're thrilled to be there. There's no reason from my standpoint to go anywhere else. This is home for us now."