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Former Charles Town trainer looks forward to Derby

April 18, 2004|by LARRY YANOS

larryy@herald-mail.com

Servis ..... with a smile.

And trainer John Servis will be grinning if his talented three-year-old Smarty Jones can win the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

The Philadelphia Park-based conditioner, who was born and raised in Charles Town, W.Va., looks forward to sending the undefeated thoroughbred to the starting gate May 1 at Churchill Downs.

Mike Battaglia, who does the morning line for Churchill Downs, established Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones as the early favorite following last Saturday's victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

"I'm not totally surprised at that," Servis said Friday from Philadelphia Park. "My horse turned in a tremendous effort, breaking from the outside post. And he improves with every race."

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Smarty Jones has won six straight races, but needed a victory last Saturday to become eligible for the Kentucky Derby.

Entries for the Kentucky Derby are determined on Graded Stakes earnings and Smarty Jones has $60,000 - the fourth highest of any Derby contender.

Smarty Jones made his racing debut on Nov. 9, 2003, in a 6-furlong Maiden Special Event at Philadelphia Park and followed with victories in the Pennsylvania Nursery, the Count Fleet Stakes, the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby.

The first two races were at Philadelphia Park, the next at Aqueduct and the last three at Oaklawn Park.

He sports career earnings of $878,355.

And when did Servis realize he had a legitimate Triple Crown contender?

"I was convinced after he won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct on Jan. 3," Servis said. "He proved there that he could handle two turns and go a distance (mile-and-70-yards). I liked his potential and conveyed my opinion to the owners."

Servis and owners Roy and Pat Chapman (Someday Farm in New Hope, Pa.) then mapped out a game plan.

"We could have taken a number of routes, Florida and Louisiana in particular, but we decided on Oaklawn Park and he took to the track - winning three straight races."

Servis says he has been asked more than once why he decided to make the Arkansas Derby a final prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

"My thinking was that if he didn't match up with those horses he really didn't belong in the Derby," Servis said. "He more than matched up."

Following the race, Smarty Jones was shipped to Keeneland, some 80 miles from Churchill Downs.

"I chose Keeneland because it has a little more of a laid-back atmosphere and I thought it would be a good place for the horse to stop and settle," Servis said. "He'll ship to Churchill Downs this coming Friday."

In describing the son of Elusive Quality, Servis said, "He's a good horse but tough to gallop. He likes to gallop right along."

Last July, Smarty Jones was almost killed when he reared in the starting gate while schooling at Philadelphia Park. He recovered from a fractured skull, winning his initial start, the only non-stakes start of his career.

Should Smarty Jones become the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, he will collect a $5 million Centennial bonus from Oaklawn Park for sweeping the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

Servis first started working with horses at Charles Town while attending Shepherd College.

He has spent most of his training career at Philadelphia Park, Delaware Park and Monmouth Park after starting in Florida for nationally acclaimed trainer Scotty Schulhofer.

At Philadelphia Park, he worked as an assistant for respected trainer Mark Reid and took over his duties in 1984.

Servis laughs when discussing his indoctrination into thoroughbred horse racing.

"I was hooked early on," Servis said. "I had one horse I was working with and the first two times I ran him he won. The horse was Two Fisted and Victor Espinosa rode the horse. After those two wins, I decided then that I didn't need any more Shepherd College. I wanted to be a horse trainer."

This will be Servis' second visit to the historic Churchill Downs.

Servis saddled Jostle in the 2000 Breeders Cup Distaff - contested at a mile-and-an-eighth with a $2,000,000 purse.

Jostle finished out of the money that day while running against older horses, but was still a finalist for an Eclipse Award as three-year-old Filly of the Year along with Spain and Surfside.

Spain and Surfside, both trained by D. Wayne Lukas, finished 1-2 in the Breeders Cup Distaff, Spain returning a winning mutuel of $113.80.

In 2000, Jostle won two Grade I stakes races and the daughter of Brocco finished fourth behind Fusaichi Pegasus, Unshaded and More Than Ready in the final 2000 National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll.

She earned over $1 million lifetime.

"That was my first trip to Churchill Downs and it was quite an experience," Servis. "I'm sure the Derby trip will be more of the same."

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The National Football League again delivered for Sam Huff - the Washington Redskins broadcaster and president of the West Virginia Breeders Classics, Inc.

In the recently released 2004-05 schedule, the Washington Redskins host the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 12, one day after the West Virginia Breeders Classics at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"It's perfect, thank you Mr. Tagliabue," Huff said.

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