Playing It Smarty Trainer John Servis stays calm as Derby Day nears.

Posted: April 28, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Early yesterday morning, John Servis was in a hurry to get to Churchill Downs. But the Philadelphia Park-based trainer of Derby darling Smarty Jones couldn't leave his rented Kentucky home until he found the only set of house keys.

After an exhaustive search, his wife, Sherry, finally unearthed them . . . stuck in the front door, left there overnight.

"The pressure must be building," Servis said.

That would be the only sign so far. Even longtimers here are commenting on how one of the coolest guys on the grounds going into Saturday's race seems to be a first-time Derby trainer and Bensalem resident who yesterday wore a blue cap with the words Pennsylvania's Smarty Jones, The Real Philadelphia Flyer.

After the keys were found, Servis still beat the sun to the track, shepherded Smarty Jones through his 7 a.m. gallop, and supervised a walk and his bath in front of a throng that included network television cameras, a dozen other long lenses, and a fan clicking away on her disposable instamatic. For more than an hour outside Barn 42, Servis answered all media inquiries. He wore a microphone during Smarty Jones' workout for CN8's Let's Go Racing show.

Servis doesn't necessarily relish the spotlight, but he has accommodated it.

"For the hundredth time," someone asked, could he go over the gate accident that all but killed Smarty Jones before the undefeated 3-year-old began racing?

"One hundred and two," he said with no hint of crustiness. "We'll tell it again."

Should Smarty Jones, trying to be the first Derby winner with both a first-time jockey and first-time trainer since Spectacular Bid in 1979, be the favorite?

"No. If he was trained by Nick [Zito] or Bob [Baffert] or Wayne [Lukas] and ridden by [Jerry] Bailey, he'd probably be the favorite," Servis said. "But that's OK with me. I don't want him to be."

Is Smarty more Main Line or South Philly?

"Definitely South Philly," he said. "I think he'd be a cheesesteak lover, for sure."

Servis, 45, grew up in Charles Town, W.Va. - which just happens to have a racetrack - but he can trace his roots to Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, where his father grew up. A successful high school wrestler in West Virginia, John worked as a groom, stablehand, vet's assistant and jockey's agent, all before he was 20 years old. Then he settled into his life's ambition, starting with a clean bank account. He bought his first winner on a kind of layaway plan, the $1,000 price owed when the horse earned it.

"I know he bought a horse for a dollar," said his older brother Jason, also a trainer.

For a couple of years, home for John and Sherry was a 36-foot travel trailer planted near racetracks such as Penn National and Atlantic City. If the temperature dipped, "we'd use a hairdryer to warm the door so you could get out," said Sherry Servis, who keeps the books for her husband's stable. "Nothing was given to us."

He's had some horses, most notably Jostle, a top 3-year-old filly in 2000 who won the Grade I Alabama Stakes and competed at Churchill Downs that year at the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Servis noted that Jostle struggled in training all week before that race. He considered pulling her out, and probably should have done it, since Jostle struggled and was out of the money. This week, everything is different.

"Knowing that you're coming in and you've got a little powder in the gun, that's a good feeling, believe me," said Servis, who took to wearing the St. Joseph's basketball T-shirt his wife sent him while he was in Arkansas, feeling a kindred spirit.

"It's been a decent year for us," he said of being a Philadelphia sports fan. "St. Joe's did well, the Flyers are doing well. It's been a long time since we brought a championship home. It'd be nice to do."

The trainer has shown a pragmatic streak throughout the run-up, including choosing the racing route to get him here. Last week, he set up shop at Keeneland Racetrack, an hour away in Lexington, to try to avoid some of the Derby hubbub. But he found Smarty Jones struggled with the surface there, and found out how that track historically doesn't prepare horses well for the Derby. He moved to Louisville a few days earlier than expected.

Since all the horses in the last five Derbys have used Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication, so will Smarty Jones, for the first time. Servis did give it to him once during training in Arkansas, with no ill effects.

"I think because Kentucky lets you do that - my horse, he's never bled," Servis said on a conference call last week. "But because Kentucky lets you do that, I think it's a good preventive measure. And . . . I'd hate to have this horse bleed at the Kentucky Derby, the biggest race of his life, and leave that excuse out there. You know?"

He knows the business. His father, Joe, was a jockey, Jockey's Guild representative and track steward at Charles Town. One of 13 children growing up at Kensington and Allegheny, Joe's own father was a milkman. The family's first horse pulled the milk wagon. Joe got the bug, rode in Juniata Park, and went out to the Widener estate, hoping to train as a jockey. There were no openings. But about to be a junior at North Catholic, he heard about an opening at Garden State walking horses.

"The deal was you took the El to Second Street, you went down to the ferry to Camden, then you took the bus to the end of the line and walked a couple of miles to Garden State," Joe Servis said.

John's parents met when their respective dates didn't want to go on the Cyclone ride at Coney Island, and dated at Saratoga, where he rode and her family spent a month each summer. Her father, a Connecticut businessman who once played piano and danced during live shows starring George Raft, tried to dissuade her from marrying Joe, just as Joe later tried to dissuade John from becoming a horseman.

"Racetrack people are a breed of their own," said Delores Servis, John's mother. "Once you're around them, you don't want to be around other people - they're so interesting."

And this week, her son has found himself at the exact center of interest in the horse racing world. Servis doesn't try to hide his confidence in his horse.

"I haven't gotten to the bottom of him yet," he said yesterday, meaning there's plenty left in the tank.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

A Closer Look at John Servis

* Born: Oct. 25, 1958, in Charles Town, W.Va.

* Residence: Bensalem.

* Home track: Philadelphia Park.

* Favorite sports teams: All the Philadelphia teams.

"I'm a homer."

* Personal: Wife Sherry, two sons, Blane and Tyler.

* Best previous horse: Jostle, winner of the 2000 Alabama Stakes.

* On his memory of Smarty Jones' gate accident before he started racing: Servis said Smarty Jones wasn't near death, "but if you would have seen it, that would be hard to believe because it was so bad. And for an onlooker, I mean, the first thing I thought of was, he's dead. He's laying in the [starting] gate. Picture him standing in the gate. He hits his head, he's laying in the stall. All four of his legs were buckled underneath him like he was going to lay down, and his head was actually underneath him in between his legs. And he was out cold, and he was just laying there. And I'm like 'Oh, my God, this horse killed himself.' And then when we finally got him up, there was no wound at all, but the blood was just pouring out of his nostrils."

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