Apprentice jockey, fledgling agent a formidable team at Parx track

Rosario Montanez, the leading apprentice jockey in the U.S., with agent Donna Servis at Parx.
Rosario Montanez, the leading apprentice jockey in the U.S., with agent Donna Servis at Parx. (JESSI MELCER / Staff photographer)
Posted: July 19, 2011

ROSARIO MONTANEZ rode his first races in the hills above his native San Diego and across the border in Tijuana. He was 11.

A decade later, he is the leading apprentice jockey in America, the favorite for the Eclipse Award, making a run at Kendrick Carmouche for leading rider at Parx Racing.

The first time he went to an actual race track, it was Del Mar, the beautiful track on the Pacific Ocean just north of San Diego. He was 9.

"After seeing match races and coming into a real race track, organized and everything, it was a lot different," Montanez said. "Then, you see the women standing in front of the jock's room. Now, we're talking."

Montanez, 20, was a quick learner then, a quick learner now.

A year ago, Donna Servis heard about a young jockey in Northern California, struggling to get live mounts at Golden Gate Fields and the Northern California fair circuit. Her friend Lisa Allen, a top owner at Parx, told her about the rider.

Servis had been around the game her whole life. Her cousin, John, was the trainer of Smarty Jones and has been at Parx for years. Another cousin, Jason Servis, is a top trainer on the New Jersey circuit. For years, she worked in the Parx racing office. Then she gave that up and went to work for Orleans Home Builders for a decade - until she got laid off in 2009.

She collected unemployment for a while. When her mother passed away in March 2010, Servis decided it was time for her to go back to the track. Her cousins suggested she become a jockey's agent, something few, if any, women have ever done. She wasn't sure, but she went for it, working for Gary Wales and Jose Ferrer.

Her father, Jack Servis, might have been the most beloved person in the history of the track. He was such a good jock's agent that he worked for two Eclipse Award winners, Art Madrid and Steve Capanas - before passing away in May 2003.

"I saw him every day [back then]," Donna said. "That was the highlight of my life."

She had been gone from the track for 14 years before coming back last year.

"The longing to be back more than anything was to be back where he was, to be close to him that way again," she said. "His big thing was respect. Treat everybody the same no matter who they are."

When they held a party for Jack a month before he passed away, Jack told Donna: "I hope you're not disappointed when no one shows up."

She told him: "I hope you're not disappointed when they all show up."

They all showed up, jamming Celebrations near the track, a fitting final tribute for Jack.

A year after Jack died, Smarty Jones was getting ready to run in the Kentucky Derby when Donna saw a giant sign in the Churchill Downs infield that read: "Jack."

Smarty Jones won the race. It was later she noticed the bottom part of the sign - Daniels.

Donna had been an agent for 6 months when she got that call from Lisa Allen. A deal was made to bring Montanez east. He got in his car.

The drive took 4 days. He had $200 and a full tank of gas. He slept in his car at truck stops.

"My car didn't waste too much gas," Montanez said. "The tolls were killing me."

He arrived last September.

"I walked into her apartment, really didn't have any money," Montanez remembered. "I said, 'Excuse me, ma'am. Have you ever seen me ride?' She said she had.

"So how does my name appear on the TV when you see me ride? 'Rodrigo Montanez.' No, ma'am, my name is Rosario Montanez. 'Well, my cousins have seen you ride.' We're off to a good start, got a lady agent who never saw me ride, coming across the country with no money. She's only been an agent for a couple of months. You're in trouble.

"We got out to the track the next morning. The first barn we go to, the trainer says, 'Get out of my barn.' Even better. I go home that night. I am ready to pack up and go."

He stayed. John Servis put him on his first horse. Phil Aristone, who trains for Lisa Allen, put him on his first winner. He got noticed. He got more mounts. He started to win. Hot apprentice jockeys, with their 5-pound weight allowance, become very popular quickly.

Montanez won 44 races at Parx the last 3 months of 2010. He has won 102 races at Parx this year. Only perennial leading jockey Carmouche has won more. Montanez' mounts have won $3 million in 2011. Jockeys get 10 percent of winning purses, 5 percent for second and third, $100 per mount otherwise. Agents typically get 25 percent of a rider's cut. Generally, a rider will end up with about 8 percent of the total mount earnings. Do the math.

"I can't believe it took me 50 years to find my niche in life," Donna said.

And it all went down when a young, unknown jockey, the son of a Mexican rider who also rode in unsanctioned match races, showed up at her apartment.

"The moment I met him I knew something was special about him," Donna Servis said. "Something just clicked."

Those match races up in the hills were illegal. A lot of money changed hands.

Now, Montanez has a lot of money in his young hands. And it is perfectly legal.

"I don't do it because of the money," Montanez said. "I do it because I love it. I wouldn't change this job for anything in the world."

His weight allowance, which lasts a year, is up on Aug. 3. He is, however, so far ahead of the next apprentice in the standings that he should be able to hold his lead in wins and earnings through the end of the year. Which would probably get him enough votes to win the Eclipse Award.

"They have 4 months to catch him," Donna Servis said.

After Parx takes its annual 3-week break next month, Montanez will return without the weight allowance. It will be Servis' job to make sure the trainers understand that it wasn't the 5 pounds that put him in the winner's circle, but his talent.

"This career is like a roller coaster," Montanez said. "Whatever goes up must go down."

Unlike so many young riders, he is saving his money, not buying an $80,000 Mercedes.

"Why am I going to do that?" he said.

He knows what it is like to be without much of anything.

"I made $49 a day working in construction," Rosario Montanez said. "I know what it feels like to go out there and kill yourself. Now I'm doing what I love and getting paid for it. I can't complain."

NATIONAL JOCKEY EARNINGS RANKINGS

 1. John R. Velazquez 637 starts, 139 firsts, 92 seconds, 96 thirds; $9,215,994

2. Ramon A. Dominguez 752 starts, 197 firsts, 159 seconds, 126 thirds; $9,061,508

3. Joel Rosario 670 starts, 151 firsts, 130 seconds, 102 thirds; $8,411,940

4. Javier Castellano 762 starts, 147 firsts, 135 seconds, 102 thirds; $7,078,040

5. Rafael Bejarano 634 starts, 130 firsts, 114 seconds, 111 thirds; $6,939,510

6. Julien R. Leparoux 704 starts, 130 firsts, 105 seconds, 93 thirds; $6,786,851

7. Luis Contreras 442 starts, 103 firsts, 77 seconds, 62 thirds; $6,165,800

8. Garrett K. Gomez 426 starts, 72 firsts, 70 seconds, 64 thirds; $5,953,941

9. Joseph Talamo 648 starts, 105 firsts, 88 seconds, 103 thirds; $5,053,248

10. Jose Lezcano 615 starts, 104 firsts, 83 seconds, 83 thirds; $5,031,311

11. Martin Garcia 390 starts, 82 firsts, 51 seconds, 44 thirds; $4,926,247

12. Eddie Castro 617 starts, 89 firsts, 95 seconds, 81 thirds; $4,813,943

13. Rosie Napravnik 617 starts 131 firsts, 100 seconds, 96 thirds; $4,699,716

14. Joe Bravo 489 starts, 101 firsts, 79 seconds, 61 thirds; $4,640,178

15. Cornelio H. Velasquez 694 starts, 135 firsts, 90 seconds, 110 thirds; $4,607,412

16. Rajiv Maragh 626 starts, 85 firsts, 68 seconds, 76 thirds; $4,307,914

17. Shaun Bridgmohan 540 starts, 111 firsts, 83 seconds, 70 thirds; $4,214,694

18. Eurico Rosa Da Silva 458 starts, 84 firsts, 86 seconds, 60 thirds; $3,927,164

19. Victor Espinoza 426 starts, 54 firsts, 67 seconds, 66 thirds; $3,874,644

20. Corey J. Lanerie 660 starts, 115 firsts, 101 seconds, 90 thirds; $3,812,006

21. Paco Lopez 626 starts, 133 firsts, 95 seconds, 93 thirds; $3,790,049

22. Patrick Husbands 337 starts, 79 firsts, 43 seconds, 50 thirds; $3,772,528

23. Alan Garcia 396 starts, 63 firsts, 61 seconds, 48 thirds; $3,651,307

24. Leandro R. Goncalves 835 starts, 161 firsts, 147 seconds, 92 thirds; $3,544,553

25. David Cohen 538 starts, 109 firsts, 91 seconds, 93 thirds; $3,434,849

26. Patrick A. Valenzuela 528 starts, 77 firsts, 78 seconds, 78 thirds; $3,427,161

27. Kendrick Carmouche 536 starts, 128 firsts, 93 seconds, 68 thirds; $3,424,948

28. James Graham 737 starts, 110 firsts, 101 seconds, 92 thirds; $3,334,726

29. Miguel Mena 574 starts, 78 firsts, 96 seconds, 82 thirds; $3,214,192

30. Corey S. Nakatani 347 starts, 59 firsts, 62 seconds, 46 thirds; $3,196,914

31. Alex O. Solis 497 starts, 71 firsts, 64 seconds, 74 thirds; $3,173,652

32. Rosario Montanez 672 starts, 110 firsts, 103 seconds, 112 thirds; $3,080,416

33. Elvis Trujillo 622 starts, 99 firsts, 83 seconds, 69 thirds; $3,074,723

34. David Romero Flores 381 starts, 57 firsts, 53 seconds, 39 thirds; $3,069,199

35. Jesus Lopez Castanon 409 starts, 48 firsts, 45 seconds, 35 thirds; $3,053,954

36. M. Clifton Berry 542 starts, 131 firsts, 69 seconds, 89 thirds; $3,008,809

37. Stewart Elliott 408 starts, 94 firsts, 76 seconds, 50 thirds; $2,982,080

38. Russell A. Baze 598 starts, 174 firsts, 120 seconds, 111 thirds; $2,949,698

39. Frankie Pennington 451 91 83 68 $2,942,771

40. Terry J. Thompson 614 123 87 86 $2,884,673

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