- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Trainer John Servis thinks Smarty Jones is like Muhammad Ali — arrogant and intimidating, with a right hoof that can back it up.

“He’s cocky, he really is,” Servis said. “Somebody asked me of all the athletes who does he remind me of, and I said Ali. He’ll kick you just to let you know, ‘You’re mine if I want you.’”

Phil Jackson, move over. Servis has become the Tony Robbins of horse whisperers. Tell me your secrets, Servis says to the colt when they’re alone, and I’ll show you how to be a champion.

Smarty Jones has recovered from a scary starting gate accident to become racing’s most dominant runner in a quarter century. Winning tomorrow’s 136th Belmont Stakes would make him racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion and leading career money-earner at $13.2million.

Not bad for a colt who fractured his skull when he smacked a starting gate in fear.

“You know, I talk to him like he’s a human being,” Servis said. “I just tell him how good he is. I tell him how much he has changed my life. I try to keep him happy, and I tell him to just keep telling me what you want, buddy.”

A big pasture with lots of fillies is coming as soon as next spring. The remaining workload is only a few more races lasting two minutes or less. A lifetime of pampered care is assured. What more could a horse want?

Maybe immortality. Smarty Jones is ready to join racing’s legends as an overwhelming Belmont favorite. He likes being the big horse on the track. In fact, Smarty Jones likes being the only horse on the track. Eight straight wins seem to have made him believe no one else should share the stretch.

When Smarty Jones begrudgingly galloped over the Belmont Park dirt with a few others during his morning exercise yesterday, it showed Servis the colt’s increasing maturity the last few months as he emerged as his generation’s best. It’s easy to be gracious when ruling the sport of kings.

“The mental aspect of it is huge,” Servis said. “You could have the fastest horse in the world, perfectly sound, but if he’s not mentally prepared, he’s not going to give you his best effort. I think he enjoys what he’s doing very much.”

Servis must be, too. He began his career mucking stalls and rubbing horses in his teens. His father was a jockey who believed learning horses “from the ground up” was the only way to truly understand them. Servis has never forgotten to listen to Smarty Jones’ body language no matter how frantic the Triple Crown run has become.

“You have three things,” Servis said. “You have the mental aspect, the physical aspect, as far as stamina goes, and you have the soundness. When I go into each race, I try to make sure that I have all three of those things exactly where I want them whether it’s a $5,000 claimer or a Kentucky Derby.”

It would have been easy to ignore Smarty Jones’ problems. The colt won his first two starts easily, including a 15-length victory Nov.22 at Philadelphia Park. But Servis noticed the colt wasn’t happy and made some equipment changes.

Smarty Jones kept winning, but Servis continued to tinker with the blinkers and bit. The two finally reached an understanding before the Kentucky Derby when the colt no longer fought his equipment and responded better to jockey Stewart Elliott.

“That has really taken him to the next level,” Servis said. “He’s always been a talented horse and beaten some good horses. He’s rated, but against the bit. His last couple of races he’s really learned to settle and be a push-button horse.”

Servis’ tactics haven’t gone unnoticed by other horsemen who have seen the colt mature into racing’s biggest star.

“The great thing I think he’s got going for him is a trainer that’s very committed to listening to the horse, and telling him when he should run and when he shouldn’t,” said Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte.

Servis has resisted examining why the last nine Triple Crown seekers failed. He won’t overanalyze the race or how his life might be changed by winning. It’s too much irrelevant information.

“I’ve spent almost my whole life working with horses,” Servis said. “One thing that I found as a trainer is that every horse is different, and you have to train that horse according to what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I wouldn’t want to train my horse the way Billy Turner trained [Seattle Slew] because they’re not the same horse.”

Servis is keeping it simple over the final days. His wife attends to the schedule of appointments so Servis can concentrate on the horse.

There will be so many opportunities open to him after tomorrow. New owners could offer stakes horses in his barn if he relocates. Endorsement deals and media appearances are possible. For someone who spent his life at small tracks, it could be distracting.

“I’m a country boy at heart,” said Servis, who is 45. “I’ve always considered myself a horseman. My first love is my family and my second love is my horses. What you’re seeing is me, and when this is done I’ll be in my barn the following morning getting the next one ready for the races.”

Servis could move to the more lucrative New York circuit and compete against trainers Nick Zito, Todd Pletcher and Scott Lake for big purses with a stable of prospects. However, his son will be a high school senior next fall, and Servis won’t uproot the family from its home in Bensalem, Pa., for a higher-profile career. Maybe that stability has offset mounting tension around the barn as the Belmont loomed closer.

“I’d love to have a barnful of good horses,” he said, “but I want to be happy and my family to be happy, so it would have to be somewhere we would all enjoy being.”

For now, Servis is happy just sticking around Smarty Jones. His gaze is never too far from the chestnut.

“I wonder what goes through his head sometimes,” Servis said.

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