Servis Stays Calm On Ride of a Lifetime
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page E12
ELMONT, N.Y., June 5 -- When it all came to an end Saturday afternoon, with his son Tyler slumping into his arms as Birdstone swept past Smarty Jones in the Belmont Park stretch and denied his horse the Triple Crown, John Servis showed no bitterness. Except for a brief moment, the trainer hardly even seemed disappointed.
Servis traveled with grace through the five weeks of the Triple Crown. Once Smarty Jones had won the Kentucky Derby, he was no longer the unknown, small-time trainer from Philadelphia Park, but a man in the peaceful eye of a hurricane.
Asked why the grueling 1½-mile Belmont continues to thwart the hopes of horses that win the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- six now in the past eight years -- Servis turned the question around. After all, he had never dreamed of winning the whole thing.
"I think it's the end of the road for the schedule that you map out," Servis said. "For us, the Derby was the end of the road. We hadn't planned on being here, and I think the mile and a half certainly has something to do with it."
When Smarty Jones took the Preakness by a record 11½ lengths, the swirl around Servis, his wife Sherry and jockey Stewart Elliott grew even greater as legions of Smarty Jones fans blossomed throughout the country.
Unlike trainer Barclay Tagg, who last year always acted edgy and short-tempered in the face of endless prodding and probing during Funny Cide's failed quest for the Triple Crown, Servis never stopped giving to the public.
Servis, 44, a second-generation horseman who grew up around Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia, held open, daily news conferences in the paddock at Philadelphia Park that often felt like revivals. He put Smarty Jones through gallops in the morning and up to 8,500 fans showed up to watch and cheer him on. Sherry took over her husband's schedule and set up his endless parade of interviews.
Except for early in the mornings, when the Philadelphia Park backstretch was closed to visitors, Servis, after training hours, seemed like he had time for everyone but himself.
In the days leading up to the Belmont, Servis had said both he and Smarty Jones would rest after the Belmont. He had told the same stories about himself, the horse, the Sacred Heart medallion he carried and slipped under Smarty Jones's saddle before each race, all of it, over and over again.
Yet he never turned down a request and, in the three weeks before the Belmont, Servis appeared to glow, basking in contentment as he lived in the moment.
"After Saturday, win, lose or draw, it's going to be a time to reminisce on how we got things done and how the year's been," he said. "It's been a long year."
Despite his fatigue after the long five weeks, Servis scheduled one more news conference for Sunday morning. Instead of disappearing into his van and taking off back to Philadelphia, Servis would answer all the questions one more time.
Just before Servis stepped down from the dais at the news conference after the loss, a reporter expressed appreciation for his accessibility and self-effacing nature throughout the entire Triple Crown series.
"My pleasure," Servis said simply. "I enjoyed it."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company