Servis takes charge

May 30, 2004|By DAVE McMILLION


With his record-setting win May 15 in the Preakness Stakes and a chance at becoming the richest racehorse in history, Smarty Jones' story is impressive enough.

But it is even more stunning to the people in Jefferson County because the man behind the training of the winning horse is a Charles Town native and a 1976 graduate of Jefferson High School.

Trainer John Servis, 45, cut his teeth in the horse-racing industry by learning about horse breeding from local experts and soaking up horse racing experiences at Charles Town Races & Slots, said his father, Joe Servis, who was a longtime jockey and state racing steward at the Charles Town track.


"He didn't play with trucks or Big Bruiser," said Joe Servis, recalling the childhood of his son. "Everything was horses."

John Servis now is sharing the limelight in what could be one of the most remarkable success stories in horse racing history.

Smarty Jones, whose seemingly bottomless reserve of energy is leaving racing aficionados in awe, set a record at the 129th Preakness Stakes when he won the race by 11 1/2 lengths. The previous record of 10 lengths was set by Survivor in the first Preakness in 1873.

With wins at the Preakness and the May 1 Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones could become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 if he wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. If he wins the Belmont, Smarty Jones would become the richest racehorse in history, with more than $13 million in winnings.

'There is no secret'

The trainer is the person in charge of the total care and training of the horse, including feeding programs, veterinary care and blacksmith work, and how the animal is run on the track.

So what was Servis' secret in bringing along a champion horse?

In some respects, there is no secret, said Joe Servis, adding that Smarty Jones simply is a fast horse.

"As John says, 'No one has emptied his tank yet,''' said Joe Servis, who lives with his wife, Dee, in the Tuscawilla Hills development along W.Va. 51 west of Charles Town.

Part of the science in training the horse involves controlling the speed of the animal while it matures, Joe Servis said.

A horse naturally wants to run as fast as it can, and the training approach sometimes taken with a racehorse is to keep its speed down until the animal has a chance to fully mature, said Ann Hilton, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the horsemen's association at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"He seems to be doing it exactly right," Hilton said of John Servis. "It's really a wonderful story and I'm happy for everyone involved."

Development of a trainer

John Servis is one of five children raised by Joe and Dee Servis at their Jefferson Avenue home, which they built in 1961.

The Servises lived in the home until about 1986. When the children had grown up and left home, Joe and Dee Servis moved to Tuscawilla Hills.

John is the second youngest among the children - his siblings are Laurie, Plesa, Jason and Jodie. Plesa and Jason also work in the horse racing business as trainers.

Interest in horses started early for John Servis. At age 14, he started working with breeding stock at the long-established O'Sullivan Farms, a horse breeding farm along W.Va. 51 west of Charles Town.

When he was about 20, Servis went to Florida to work with a prominent trainer and stayed there for a winter season, his father said.

Servis later worked as a jockey's agent, and ended up at Philadelphia Park, where he worked for a well-known trainer named Mark Reid.

Reid had about 50 horses at Philadelphia Park, and Servis was put in charge of "shed row," which involved hiring help and overseeing grooms, Joe Servis said.

"When he went in there, he was ready. And Mark polished him off," Joe Servis said.

High school days

John Servis went to local schools and attended Jefferson High School, where he played on the football team and was a member of the wrestling squad.

Servis met his wife, Sherry, a cheerleader, at Jefferson High School and they became sweethearts, said Sherry's sister, Sharon Keys of Inwood, W.Va. John and Sherry Servis now live in Bensalem, Pa., near Philadelphia Park.

Keys described John as someone who has a pleasant personality and who never utters a smart-aleck word to family members.

"He respects the family," Keys said. "He's the best brother-in-law I've had."

Local family members, including Keys, Sherry's brother, Wayne Bagent of Inwood, and their parents, went to the Preakness and are planning to attend the Belmont.

Friends of Servis and people in the area who remember him have been pulling out their old high school yearbooks and other mementos to reminisce.

Gary Wratchford of Shepherdstown, W.Va., was head wrestling coach at Jefferson High School when Servis was on the team in the mid-1970s. Wratchford coached the team when Servis was a senior on the squad.

In matches with competitors, Servis never delayed taking the offensive, and Wratchford remembers him being one of the toughest members of the team.

"He was a kid who really despised losing," said Wratchford, who now teaches health and physical education in Loudoun County, Va. "You knew he was going to do well in life just because of his work ethic."

'Tickled to death'

Kent Shock, a former vice principal at Jefferson High School, said he remembers Servis and his siblings attending Jefferson.

Servis was a good student and the kind of youngster a principal likes to have in a school, Shock said.

Shock said educators always are "tickled to death" when a former student such as Servis achieves success.

Servis' success story also has instilled pride in the Charles Town community, where horse racing has been an integral part of the economy since 1933.

"Congratulations, John Servis. Great, great race," reads the entrance sign at the Turf Motel, which is on East Washington Street near the entrance to Charles Town Races & Slots.

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