Thursday, June 3, 2004

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce had been planning to honor two of its native sons who had gone on to make names for themselves. One is a renowned heart surgeon in Washington, the other a brigadier general.

After hometown boy John Servis’ horse, Smarty Jones, won the Kentucky Derby, the chamber added a third.

“These are people who came from humble beginnings who had the ability to go on and do well in their lives,” said Mary Via, chamber executive director. “They are local people who have strong connections to the community.”

Servis certainly came from humble beginnings, growing up in a mobile home in the shadow of Charles Town Race Track, where his father, Joe, was a jockey. He later became manager of the Jockey’s Guild and then a steward at the track.

Though he left more than 20 years ago, Servis still has strong connections to this panhandle town. His parents live here, and his success in training Smarty Jones to the verge of being the next Triple Crown winner is the talk of the horse racing community in Charles Town.

The sign at the Turf Motel, one of the hangouts for horse people near the track, reads, “Good Luck John Servis with Smarty Jones.” The locals there are all proud of Servis’ success.

“There is a lot of pride in what he [Servis] is doing,” said Roger Ramey, vice president of public affairs at the track. “All you have to say is ‘Smarty Jones,’ and it’s a 15-minute conversation in this town. He is the hometown boy winning the World Series in the ninth inning with a home run.

“People who have lived here and are connected with the track know the Servis family well. John loved horse racing and was brought up spending a lot of time here at the track.”

If Servis, who is now based at Philadelphia Park, does return to receive his chamber honor at the end of this month, he may not recognize his hometown. Jefferson County, about 90 miles from Washington, has grown from about 32,000 people to more than 50,000 since he left.

“Charles Town is like a bedroom community for Washington now,” said James Boyer, who grew up with Servis and went to Jefferson High School with him. “When we were growing up, everyone knew everybody else here. Now there are a lot of people here who don’t know John. But the racing community is very pumped up about what John has done.”

Servis, 46, might have a hard time finding that racing community these days or the track of his youth.

When Servis left Charles Town, it was a sleepy little track that had fallen on hard times. After its purchase by Penn National Gaming in 1997 and the addition of slot machines, it has become a giant, stretching its market 90 miles into Maryland and the District with billboards urging gamblers to come to Charles Town.

Charles Town has the look, feel and sound of a Las Vegas casino — the gaudy carpeting, the garish lighting, the raucous background din of slot machines — with a whole lot of people who can’t afford to be losing money. It is Maryland’s racing future.

“Charles Town is on a real high right now,” Ramey said. “We’re giving away $215,000 in purses daily. We used to take a back seat to other tracks. Now we are getting the good horses up here.”

Tomorrow the racing people here will stop shortly after 6 p.m. to watch a great horse and their friend who has became a national celebrity by training Smarty Jones with small-town sincerity.

“We are all very happy for him here,” said Debbie McClure, who works in the marketing department at Charles Town and graduated from Jefferson High a year behind Servis. “He was very popular here, very outgoing. I had a crush on him in high school, but every girl did. He used to date all the cheerleaders. That’s how he met his wife.”

The small-town boy who married his high school sweetheart, who, of course, was a cheerleader. There is no shortage of great stories swirling around Smarty Jones, and John Servis is certainly one of them.

“I got teary-eyed watching when he won the Kentucky Derby,” McClure said. “This is someone from a small town making something of himself and making Charles Town famous.”

And for that, the boy who used to work on the back side of the Charles Town track has earned the stature of a cardiac surgeon and an Air Force brigadier general.

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