Old friends, new experience

Spotlight: Racing's center stage was foreign territory to trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott until Smarty Jones came along.

May 15, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The first words out of John Servis' mouth on national television after the Kentucky Derby were: "Absolutely masterful ride. Unbelievable ride by Stewart."

Stewart Elliott had ridden the Servis-trained Smarty Jones to a 2 3/4 -length victory in the country's biggest race. Friends for more than two decades, Servis and Elliott became the first trainer-jockey combination to win the Derby in their first try since Marylanders Bud Delp and Ron Franklin with Spectacular Bid in 1979.

"For two friends in the same business to come up with a horse and be able to go and win the Kentucky Derby, that's pretty amazing," said Elliott, who will ride Smarty Jones today in the Preakness.

Elliott, 39, and Servis, 45, met in the early 1980s when Elliott was an apprentice and Servis was a jockey's agent. They became friends and wound up together at Philadelphia Park, Elliott riding horses for Servis, by then a trainer.

Since May 1, when Smarty Jones became the first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, Elliott and Servis have shared the national spotlight. Initially, it illuminated the unlikely rise from obscure Philadelphia Park. Recently, it shone into Elliott's past.

He failed to disclose on license applications in Kentucky and Maryland that he had pleaded guilty in 2001 to aggravated assault in New Jersey. He had been charged with beating a man with a beer bottle, pool cue and wooden stool. He also pleaded guilty the same year to simple assault and criminal mischief after being charged with punching his girlfriend and trying to break down her door.

Yesterday, after arriving at Pimlico Race Course, he met with reporters despite the onslaught of negative publicity. He spoke softly, looked questioners in the eye and answered directly.

"I try to handle it," he said. "I try to do the best I can. Everybody's on the phone, everybody's trying to reach you. It's just time-consuming ... just keeps you very busy with an already busy schedule of my own."

He said that ever since winning the Derby, he expected news of his past to surface.

"I kind of thought they might dig up some of my bad stuff," Elliott said. "I've had a lot of personal problems, and I've done some things I'm not proud of. I just want to look ahead and, hopefully, all that mess is behind me."

He attributed the problems to drinking. He said he's been sober for 3 1/2 years.

Servis, who has also responded directly to questions, said he and Smarty Jones' owners, Patricia and Roy Chapman, knew about the jockey's past. They knew it would come out eventually; they're almost relieved it finally has, Servis said.

"That's part of his life I know he's trying to forget," Servis said. "The quicker you guys [in the media] let him forget it, the better off he's going to be."

Servis and Elliott are not only friends around the racetrack but they also hunt regularly together - mainly with bows for turkey and deer. Otherwise, Servis said: "Stew doesn't go out very much. He's very quiet. He's a homebody."

Servis said the unrelenting scrutiny has not rattled Elliott.

"He's like Smarty Jones," Servis said. "I haven't found anything that fazes him yet."

Elliott is Servis' regular rider, and Elliott has ridden Smarty Jones in each of his seven races. After winning the Arkansas Derby, with the Kentucky Derby looming, Roy Chapman addressed the jockey issue with Servis.

"You know, John, it's the biggest race of our life," Chapman, nicknamed "Chappy," told Servis. "There are going to be 20 horses. There are going to be a zillion people. Are you going to be confident with Stew going into the race?"

Without hesitating, Servis said: "Absolutely, Chappy. No doubt in my mind."

And Chapman replied: "All right. If he's your man, then he's our man."

Servis said Elliott is as good a rider as there is in the country. After the Kentucky Derby, in which Elliott guided Smarty Jones in a flawless ride, Servis said he sees rides like that from Elliott every day.

"He sees things coming before they happen," Servis said. "He's got the three biggest things you need as a rider: He's an intelligent rider. He's a patient rider. He's a very strong rider."

Servis and Elliott grew up in families immersed in horse racing and knew early what they wanted to do. Servis was 14 when he told his father, Joe, a former Maryland jockey and Charles Town (W.Va.) steward, that he wanted to be a trainer. His father sent him that summer to work at a farm near their home in West Virginia. The young Servis mucked stalls and pulled weeds.

"I think he was shocked when I wanted to go back next summer," Servis said.

Servis eventually got a job on the backstretch and worked as an assistant trainer and jockey's agent before starting to train on his own in 1984 at Philadelphia Park. His best horse before Smarty Jones was Jostle, a filly who in 2000 captured two Grade I stakes, the Alabama and Coaching Club American Oaks, as well as the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico.

Elliott's father was a jockey in Canada. Stewart Elliott dropped out of high school to ride horses and become a jockey. Later, he struggled with his weight in the mid-1980s and quit riding races for a year and a half - until he realized he didn't know anything else.

"I've done this since I was kid," Elliott said. "I mean, this is it for me. I gave my education, everything, to do this. This is all I know."

After winning the Derby in his first try, Elliott, who has won more than 3,200 races, said: "Yes, this is the Kentucky Derby. But a horse race is a horse race. I've done this thousands of times."

Today, for the first time, he gets to do it in the Preakness.

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