- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

BALTIMORE — Trainer John Servis was a late bloomer as a child. He didn’t talk for so long that his parents took Servis to the doctor, fearing something was wrong. The doctor said he would talk when ready.

One day, Servis blurted out “horse” as he rode by equines. It was the only word he would say for weeks. Who knew it would ultimately define his life?

Now Smarty Jones is turning Servis into the most famous trainer in U.S. racing. Not white-haired Bob Baffert from California, who is known for his witty zingers. Not stetson-wearing D. Wayne Lukas, whose stranglehold on the spring classics ended in the 1990s. Not a number of well-heeled conditioners from Kentucky who think the bluegrass makes them bluebloods.

Racing’s newest sensation is a second-generation horseman who started mucking stalls at a breeding farm in Charles Town, W.Va., that was the end of the road for racing. It’s a trainer who gained the colt when the preceding conditioner was murdered. It’s a diehard sports fan who watches Philadelphia Flyers games for relaxation from the Triple Crown grind.

Servis decided he wanted to be a trainer at 14 like his idol Charlie Whittingham, who won two Kentucky Derbies and one Preakness. Servis’ father sent him to Charles Town to work for a friend. Servis did all the grunt work over the summer, even pulling weeds in his boss’ garden.

“I don’t know if they were concentrating on getting me out of the business,” Servis said, jokingly. “My dad wanted me to learn from the bottom up and respect the horse for what he was.”

Servis was given a horse as a high school graduation present. He sold it three days later. It was a business decision. Trainers don’t get attached to horses. At least they pretend it’s not personal. But Servis found out how attached he was to mornings in the barns after suffering a serious injury playing baseball. He returned as a jockey’s agent for two years before returning to the stables as an assistant trainer. He finally grew his own modest stable into a 42-horse barn at Philadelphia Park.

Now Servis is so busy that his wife, Sherry, has become his de facto business manager. She managed a list of appointments the last two weeks that is sure to swell several times over before the Belmont Stakes on June5.

This kind of pressure has crippled many trainers, but Servis isn’t bending. He refused to train Smarty Jones hard between the Derby and Preakness, preferring to keep the horse fresh. It showed immediately yesterday when the colt broke cleanly from the starting gate to pressure leader Lion Heart.

Even though he was sure how the race would go, Servis refused to tell jockey Stewart Elliott how to ride while they waited for the colt to be saddled.

“I told Stew it looks like it could be the same race [as the Derby],” Servis said. “I let Stew ride the race. I don’t want to put too much in his head, and you don’t know what’s going to unfold out there. You just let him do his job.”

Just do your job. It will be harder for Servis to remember his own advice in coming weeks. Helicopters have followed Smarty Jones’ van around Philadelphia. Thousands of fans watched a morning workout. It will only become more intense.

Servis will spend nearly the next three weeks at Philadelphia Park, but there will be no escaping the pressure. It will find him in Bensalem, Pa.

The question is whether Servis will let any self-doubts be expanded by second-guessers. The Belmont lacks any serious challengers who skipped the Preakness. Smarty Jones could be the heaviest Belmont favorite since Seattle Slew, but Servis needn’t worry excessively. After all, it’s only history at stake.

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