There is more of everything at the racetrack, more risk, more hope, more mud, beer, and cigarette smoke, and more failure, too. John Servis knew that when he decided to become a horse trainer, just as he knew he was trading normality for a certified obsession. For years Servis worked, patient and unrewarded on the back side of Philadelphia Park, a minor municipal racetrack, content just to make a decent living on the fragile genius of a species that runs on one hoof at a time.
What were the chances that a Triple Crown contender would land in his tin-roofed shed row at Philly Park, a joint otherwise peopled, as all racetracks are, by pockets of seedy downtroddens and chain-smoking, ever-hopeful wrecks with hacking coughs called hardcore bettors? Well, let's see. There were 34,539 thoroughbreds foaled in North America in 2001, the same year as Smarty Jones. Which make the odds exactly 34,539 to one. Not very hopeful. And yet.
It was so unlikely that at first Servis didn't believe it himself. Servis was working around his barn when he got a call from a Florida handler named George Isaacs who was about to send him an unraced 2-year-old, owned by a local Philadelphia car dealer and his wife, Roy and Patricia Chapman. The horse, Isaacs said, showed exceptional promise. But a lot of horses had passed through Servis's barn. "You know how many horses we've seen? Big horses, grand horses," says his barn foreman, Bill Foster. "And they couldn't run from here to there."
A few days later, Servis sat on a pony and watched the shimmering chestnut colt, Smarty Jones, gallop. At the end of the day, he went home to his wife, Sherry, and said, "Finally, somebody was telling the truth."
The result may be racing immortality. On Saturday, Smarty Jones will attempt to become only the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown. None has accomplished the feat, a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont, since Affirmed 26 years ago. The odds? He's a 2-5 favorite, but they hardly matter, since Smarty Jones and Servis have consistently defied them. Smarty's pedigree is not illustrious; in a seven-figure sport, his dam cost $40,000. Servis had never so much as entered a horse in a Triple Crown race.
But the colt is unbeaten in eight starts, and he has never been passed. There is no arguing with his record under the hand of Servis, a second generation horseman whose father was a hardscrabble jockey and track steward for 50 years at Charles Town, W. Va. The horse has won $7.4 million, and his form has been unflagging.
"The only thing I know is, not too many trainers could get a horse to win nine in a row," says Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Shulhofer, to whom Servis once apprenticed. "He's a darn good little horseman and I don't know how he could have done any better."
The horse's form is so good, in fact, that after years of hard and unsentimental work and chastened expectations, even Servis has allowed himself to . . . hope. "I don't know how good this horse is," he says. "I'm telling you I haven't gotten close to the bottom of it yet."
Servis leans idly against a fence in the shed row outside of Smarty Jones's stall, contemplating his horse. He's a smallish and neatly built creature whose most distinguished features are a fine head, an obvious liveliness and a lustrous red coat that has earned him the nickname "Little Red."
Servis is no more impressive-seeming than the colt. He's a small, hands-on trainer who was unknown except to hardcore East Coast horsemen prior to this spring. Other trainers have more exquisitely bred horses; nine yearlings sold for more than $1 million in 2002. None of them is in Servis's barn. Other trainers have a hundred horses and can work without getting their hands dirty. Servis's own day begins at 5 a.m., seven days a week, when he personally runs his hands over each of the modestly bred 40 or so animals in his care, checking for telltale heat in the tendons, a sign of infection or injury. His chief talent, he says, is patience, the ability to "listen" to his horse and keep him sound.
"Horses will talk to you if you listen," Servis says. "You just gotta pay attention. Just watch them. Sometimes I'll come out and just walk the shed for 10, 15 minutes, look for different things. They'll tell you."
He doesn't need to listen too hard to hear this horse, pawing loudly at his straw. The other day, Smarty was so lively that Servis could hear him squealing across the barn. Servis turned his head in time to see a feed bucket come shooting out of his stall. The obvious question is, if Servis is so good at listening to his horse, what's he saying? "He's telling you he's ready," Servis says.
When Servis talks about listening to his colt, he doesn't mean horse whispering. What he means is his own inner voice, the one that warned him not to overwork a brilliant young colt. Restraint is a rare quality in horse training; the pressure to satisfy the egos of wealthy owners is enormous. But Servis has it. At every turn, he opted in favor of a soft schedule and light workouts, even as expectations have steadily ratcheted. The enemy of all horses in the five-week Triple Crown season is fatigue, but the colt has recovered from each race so well that, as Servis puts it, "you can't hold the [son of a gun] on the ground."
"Number one in horse racing, you have to have the horse," Foster says. "Number two, you have to know what to do with the horse when you have him. A lot of people in this business have had a lot of horses, and never made it because they broke them down. It happens a lot. Mismanaged. Mistrained. All because people want to be in the limelight. Which is where we're different. We don't want to be in the limelight."
One way to beat the odds in racing is not to ask for too much from it. There's nothing overtly prosperous about Servis, he doesn't cut the private jet-Ralph Lauren swath of a D. Wayne Lukas, the six-time Kentucky Derby winner who has corporatized training. Servis is a suburban dad with a shock of blond hair, neatly pressed jeans, a plaid shirt and lace-up work boots who tries to combine steadiness with his passion for horses. He found his compromise at Philly Park, set among fast food joints and subdivisions, where he's carved out a solid living since 1984. He married a cheerleader from his home town 24 years ago, and they live just a mile from the track in Bensalem, where his favorite recreation is to coach his two sons Blane, 16, and Tyler, 13, in the local football league. Sherry runs the concessions. When the Belmont is over, he says, this is what he'll return to.
Servis and Foster sat outside of Barn 11 in Philadelphia Park on a couple of folding chairs in the sunlight. Although it was exactly a week before the Belmont, they might as well have been whittling. Each of them chewed on half-smoked imported cigars, wrapped in rich dark brown tobacco leaf.
"We used to smoke the cheap ones," Foster says, grinning. "But then we won a couple races."
Early Love Affair
Horses are a hard living, and it was useless for Joe and Dolores Servis to try and conceal that fact from their four children, since they were living in a trailer.
A horseman calls hard luck down on his own head by hanging around stables instead of becoming a man in a gray flannel suit. For Joe Servis, it started in the horse and buggy days with the nags who pulled his father's milk truck in Kensington, Ala. He would sneak over to the stable when they were hooking them up at 2:30 a.m., and ride. His father always knew where he'd been, because he could smell him. "You've been in the barn again," he'd say.
"When you like the smell of manure, that's when you know you're stuck," Joe says.
Joe was stuck for the next half century. He found his way to the Charles Town race track, in the heart of the Shenandoah hills, where he became a jockey. Locals gathered on the grassy hillside and picnicked while Joe raced around the dirt oval. At night the track was lit by 50-gallon galvanized drums. Dolores would put the kids in the car, and park at the fence, and they'd sit in their pajamas, and watching through the windshield. John would stare at the thoroughbreds, sucking on his bottle, and clutched at stuffed ponies. His first word was "horse."
They lived in a mobile home that was 41 feet long and only eight feet across. "In those days there was no such thing as a double wide," Dolores says. Eventually, Joe decided to look for a better living, and found one as a manager for the jockey's guild, and later a track steward. That allowed him to build a home, but it meant traveling constantly.
By the time John was 12, he was sneaking rides. He'd walk up the road to a neighboring pasture and mount a giant old paint named Flo, in his shorts and bare feet. When he was 14, he announced to his parents, "I want to be a trainer."
Joe tried to cure him by sending him to a breeding farm for the summer. All John did was muck stalls and pull weeds. It was Joe's way of testing him, showing him what he could expect. It didn't work. "You make sure they get dirty and dusty and sweaty and tired," Joe says. "And if they still tell you they love it, then you gotta help 'em."
To please his parents, John enrolled at Shepherd College, but he was just marking time. "Once you get it in your blood, you can't get it out," John says. "I got it in my blood."
He quit after just a year and opted for a different kind of schooling at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, working as a groom for Shulhofer. He lived in a room at the end of the barn and rubbed down horses. Servis moved on to Philly Park as an assistant trainer and lived in a 26-foot trailer. It had sliding glass doors that would freeze in the winter. He'd have to use the hair dryer to unlock the door to get out in the morning.
Servis finally struck out on his own in 1984 with one horse. For the next several years, it was an up and down living. He'd chosen a profession in which luck figured heavily, hard work was seldom rewarded, and he could expect to lose about 80 percent of the time. Once, just before Christmas, an owner tried to stick him with $100,000 in unpaid bills. Another owner yanked all of his horses and gave them to a name trainer, Nick Zito.
"As years went on, I said, 'This life is so much different from my friends,' " Sherry Servis says. "They go out. They go on vacations. They have weekends off. But I learned to appreciate it, because he thrived. He was happiest when he was doing it."
Servis compensated by cultivating a family of loyal staffers at his barn. In 1995, Foster, a strapping man with a voice from the bottom of a barrel, arrived at the barn gate looking for work. His parents had just died, and he was divorced. Servis hired him. He showed a similar sympathy and loyalty to jockey Stewart Elliott, whom he would stand by over 20 years, through Elliott's bouts with alcoholism. His exercise rider, Pete Van Trump, has been a steady employee since 1992. When Van Trump broke his foot in two places, Servis drove him to the hospital, and picked up the tab. "Some people could give a care less," Van Trump says.
Servis and his staff were sufferers of the persistent belief that rewards should be the reflection of thoroughness and patience. No amount of evidence to the contrary shook their belief that the big horse could happen to them.
"Always there's always a flame in your heart," Foster says. "We'd see the two-year-olds come in, and we'd say, 'Maybe this year.' And finally it happened, he came. Out of the sky."
'The Real Deal'
At first, the crew at the Servis barn was jadedly unimpressed with Smarty Jones. Foster eyed the little red horse, and said skeptically, "He's well put together, but he's small."
Servis replied, "They say at the farm he's the real deal."
Van Trump said, "Well, he'll have to show me."
He did. In his first serious workouts at Philadelphia Park, Smarty Jones ate up every horse in front of him. He dominated proven winners, veteran 3-year-olds. "He'd say yeah, okay, bye-bye," Van Trump says.
The horse presented Servis with a dilemma. He was fast, but Servis needed to slow him down and dampen the high expectations of his owners. Isaacs, manager of Bridlewood Farm in Ocala where Smarty was schooled, had made a by-now famous remark to the Chapmans, "This could be the horse you've waited your whole life for."
Roy Chapman, 77, was suffering from emphysema and he and his wife were heartbroken over the loss of their former trainer and friend Bob Camac, who bred the horse. In 2001 Camac and his wife Maryann were shot to death by Camac's stepson, apparently over a financial dispute. The Chapmans sold most of their horses but kept Smarty, and they hired Servis to do just one thing. They wanted to make the Kentucky Derby.
But Servis had seen too many promising horses fizzle to encourage the owners. What if the horse got hurt, or didn't pan out? "George, you're killing me," he told Isaacs.
As it happened, Smarty slowed things down himself. The 2-year-old, still shy of the starting gate, reared up one morning and smashed his head against an iron bar, fracturing his skull. As he buckled, Servis stared at the bleeding, unconscious horse, he thought, "He's dead."
Smarty needed three weeks in an equine hospital and another two months of rest before he was fully recovered. Servis now believes the incident may have helped the colt, because it forced a pause in his training and allowed him to mature. "The longer you're in the business the more you realize that if you don't wait, they'll make you wait," Servis says.
When Smarty was finally able to race in November, he won his first outing at Philly Park by 73/4 lengths. "Boy, he's a pretty nice horse, isn't he?" Roy Chapman said suggestively to Servis.
Servis still didn't want to encourage his owner. "We got a ways to go, Chappie," Servis said. "We'll see how he runs next time."
But Smarty won the first three races of his career combined by nearly 28 lengths. After the third, Chapman said to Servis, slyly, "You going to give him some credit now?"
Servis agreed it was time to put the horse on the Derby trail. But he chose a cautious path that led through Hot Springs, Ark., where there were three preparatory races of progressive lengths. Servis was away from his family for two months as he slowly brought the horse along. The colt responded with a sweep.
"You know, people said he took the easy route to Arkansas, but in the meantime the horse was winning, he was improving and his heart was getting bigger," Elliott would say later. The Chapmans never questioned Servis, and one reason was that they had come to like him so much. When they arrived at Churchill Downs for Derby Day, John introduced his parents. Roy Chapman rose out of his wheelchair and gripped Joe in a hug. "You raised one heck of a son," he said.
That day, Servis watched from a box seat through a pair of binoculars, expressionlessly, as the horse did everything he was taught. He refused to scream as Smarty became the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. "So many times I rooted for a horse, and he got beat," Servis says. He did throw his arms in the air when the horse crossed the wire.
The next morning Sherry woke up in their hotel room, said, "Was I dreaming or did we win the Kentucky Derby?" John got up and got the paper.
"Yeah, I think we did," he said. "There's the newspaper."
He knew it for sure when they arrived back at Philly Park to find media helicopters hovering over his barn and gawkers surrounding it. He stared at Sherry with a gaze that said, "Help." Servis was exhausted. He had heaps of suitcases home from his stay in Arkansas and there was the Preakness to prepare for.
At home, he stretched out on the sofa for a nap. The phone rang for the millionth time. "I'm not answering it," he thought, determinedly. The phone rang again. He refused to pick it up. It rang again. He seized the receiver. "Who is it?"
It was his son, Tyler. "Dad, there's a father-son baseball game at school," he said. "Can you come?"
Servis got up wearily from the couch. "Yeah," he said. "I can come."
Servis was more tired than his horse. But as a precaution, Servis decided to rest Smarty completely in the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness. "The Derby trail kicked my [backside], so I figured it was kicking his."
It wasn't just that Smarty won the Preakness, but the way he did it, by a record 111/2 lengths, that ratified Servis's methods. The chestnut's status as a Triple Crown contender transformed Servis from an unknown into a national figure and a man unaccustomedly in demand.
Servis could stable at any racetrack from Santa Anita to Belmont Park to Churchill Downs now. But, typically, he doesn't aspire to leave Philly Park. "He can write his own ticket," says Foster, "but I don't think he will."
Typically, Servis insists that he won't leave Philly for a bigger track at least until his older son graduates from high school -- if ever. Win or lose the Belmont, Servis hopes to eventually recover the air of quiet in his barn. "After it all sinks in, I'll come back here and go back to work and keep doing what I do," he says.
The chances of Smarty Jones winning a Triple Crown are negligible, of course. Since Affirmed, nine horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and failed. For the little red from Philly to win, he would have to equal Seattle Slew as the only undefeated winner of the Triple Crown ever. The odds of that are, well, about 34,539 to one.
And yet . . .