Attentive handling got Smarty Jones' trainer out of gate

Family: John Servis was raised in a world of horse racing and parental support.

Belmont Stakes

May 31, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- When Joe Servis was 16 and embarking upon a life in racing, his father, Fred, a Philadelphia milkman, put his arm around him and said: "There's a lot I haven't been able to give you. But I've given you my name. Don't do anything to disgrace it."

Servis, 72, recalls the moment haltingly, choking back emotion. Even though Servis was going to the racetrack instead of back to his junior year in high school, his father supported him. Servis never forgot.

Years later, when Joe Servis' son John was 14 and stubbornly committed to becoming a horse trainer, the senior Servis never wavered. He didn't try to talk his son out of it. He didn't say the boy was too young to know what he wanted to do.

He told John that if he wanted to be a horse trainer, then he would have to learn about horses from the bottom up. He sent the boy to a top horse farm that summer to work, cleaning stalls and pulling weeds. The boy grew up and became John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones, the undefeated horse one triumph away from winning the Triple Crown.

"If that's what I wanted to do, then that was OK with him," John Servis, 45, says of his father. "But he wanted me to be the best at it that I could be. That's just the way he is, the way he's always been."

Since winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Smarty Jones, Servis has been preparing the dark-chestnut colt for the Belmont Stakes at his home base of Philadelphia Park. He plans to send Smarty Jones by van to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on Wednesday for the climactic race Saturday. If Smarty Jones wins, he would become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

No one would be prouder than Servis' parents, Dee and Joe, a former jockey who rode the Maryland circuit a half-century ago. They raised John into a world of horses here in West Virginia.

Starting young

"When John was little, he was slow to talk," says Dee, sitting in the living room of their home in an attractive subdivision on the outskirts of Charles Town. "We were at the point we were getting worried. When he did start talking, the first thing he saw was a horse. That was his first word, `horth.' Instead of `da-da,' it was `horth.' "

When John was 3 or 4, he used to run around the house, in and out of the doors pretending he was a horse and making horse noises, his parents say.

"His imagination was horses, all the time," Joe says.

Adds Dee: "He just always wanted to be around horses."

That was no wonder. When Joe was riding, Dee took the children -- John was one of four -- to watch the races at the Charles Town track. They sat on a grassy knoll near one of the starting gates with the other jockeys' families.

When the starting gate opened, a bell rang. Dee and Joe's daughter, Laurie, especially liked that.

When Laurie was 3 and attending church with the family, she heard the bell ring for the call to communion. She stood up and said, "They're off!"

Laurie eventually married Eddie Plesa Jr., a Florida horse trainer. She's the oldest of the Servis children at 50. Jason, 47, is a trainer in New York. John, is next and is, of course, the trainer of Smarty Jones. Only Jodie, 40, didn't pursue a life in racing. She lives in Texas and works with handicapped children.

Strong lineage

Joe was the rudder that steered the Servises through this single-focus world. He grew up in Philadelphia. His father started his career as a milkman with a horse-drawn wagon. His mother worked in a Philco factory making radios.

Joe can't explain it, but he was drawn to horses. He started riding when he was 8 or 9 at a stable about 1 1/2 miles from home. He frequently didn't have the money, so he earned his rides working around the stable.

He was no stranger to work. He had a pretzel route when he was 5 or 6. He carted groceries home for neighbors in a wagon. When he was 16, he walked horses at Garden State Park in New Jersey. To get there, he took a train, a ferry, a bus, then walked two miles.

After three days, he approached one of biggest trainers at the track. Joe told him he was an experienced hot walker, but he didn't have enough work. The trainer hired him, and within a month Joe Servis had signed a five-year contract that wedded his life to the racetrack.

He fulfilled his boyhood dream and became a jockey, riding his first race at Charles Town in 1949. He frequently rode in Maryland at Bel Air, Cumberland, Timonium, Marlborough and Havre de Grace as well as at Pimlico and Laurel.

Joe says he won 500 or 600 races and a few minor stakes. But he always struggled with his weight, and in the late 1950s at Pimlico, when a horse reared up on the backstretch and threw him off, he crushed his right heel on a concrete drain.

He eventually underwent surgery, and during his recovery in 1961 he went to work for the jockeys' union, the Jockeys' Guild. He worked as a guild manager for 11 years and then as a steward at Charles Town from 1973 to 1997. He still fills in as a steward at Charles Town and at tracks in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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