To Churchill via Afghanistan, horse trainer Mark Simms followed his dream

For Simms, the path to the Winner’s Circle at Churchill Downs had gone through various states and countries, through countless predawn drives chasing a dream in his spare time and through, of all places, Afghanistan.

“I really do thank the Lord every morning,” Simms said. “I’m training racehorses. I’m living the dream.”

His alarm clock goes off at 3:30 a.m., with long days facing even longer odds in trying to break into a tough business.

Simms, who recently turned 30, went out on his own in 2017 as a trainer. That move was after a stint assisting Churchill-based trainer Dale Romans that began when Simms was enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He was a soldier, part of a military family, joining ROTC in high school in Virginia and the Army out of college, being stationed all over the place. But even then, it was always about horses. His grandfather, a horse trainer himself, would always tell a story of how Simms learned to walk in a horse barn. Simms grew up on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian Reservation in North Dakota, which had a racetrack, Chippewa Downs.

“As long as I can remember,” Simms said, “all I’ve really wanted to do was train racehorses. … They get in your blood, and it’s really hard to shake them.”

While stationed in Korea at one point, Simms would go to a racetrack on the weekends with a Korean soldier who could translate the program, and they’d figure out horses on which to bet…