Racing has been Jason Servis' livelihood as long as he can remember, and while the start of his training career wasn't exactly planned, he has thrived as a conditioner, and has sent out at least one graded stakes winner for the past four seasons.
Servis' most recent success story will be on display July 8, when he sends out Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) winner Actress in the $300,000 Delaware Oaks (G3) at Delaware Park. Actress follows graded stakes winners like Hangover Kid, Tightend Touchdown, and Sunny Ridge in recent years for Servis, who launched his racing career at age 43.
Raised not far from Charles Town, W.Va., where his father Joe served as a steward, Servis began his racing career as an exercise rider and valet at Monmouth Park and Meadowlands. As an exercise rider he worked for top trainers like Jimmy Croll and Harry Wells.
"I was doing OK," Servis said. "The money was good, I was raising two kids and the racing was top notch in Jersey back then."
Working as part of a successful stable is one thing, but running a stable as trainer is something else. Near the end of 2000, the Meadowlands meeting was almost over and Servis had few plans for the winter months. Then owner Dennis Drazin, a Red Bank, N.J., attorney and horse owner who these days also helps run Monmouth, asked Servis if he would consider taking a few horses to New York to race at Aqueduct Racetrack.
"It wasn't like I thought I was going to switch careers and suddenly train a stable of horses," Servis said. "I figured I'd train Dennis' horses through the winter, then he'd want to move them to another barn and I'd go back to doing what I'd been doing before."
Shortly after Servis took over the Drazin horses, he got a call from Croll, who saw Servis' name in the Aqueduct entries. He offered to send a horse to the new trainer.
"Sure enough the horse won. He paid a big price," Servis said. "People started noticing the outfit and before you know it I wound up with 20 horses."
Servis did well almost from the start and in 2004 his runners had cracked the million-dollar mark in earnings. Racing primarily in New Jersey in the summer and Florida in the winter, the Servis stable steadily grew and in 2012 his runners topped $2 million in purse earnings. Servis horses brought home $3.7 million in purses in 2013. In recent years Servis has moved the bulk of his string to New York to take advantage of increased purses offered in that state. Last season his runners earned $3.4 million.
Last season Drazin homebred Sunny Ridge won the Withers Stakes (G3). Last month the New Jersey-bred son of Holy Bull finished second in the Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (G2) to push his earnings to $937,402.
Then there's Gary and Mary West's Actress. By Tapit she arrived at Servis' barn in Florida in the fall and it didn't take long to see the gray or roan filly was something special. Actress is out of Milwaukee Appeal, byMilwaukee Brew, who twice earned grade 1 placings and placed against males in Canada's Queen's Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes.
"She came in with a group sent to us by the Wests, but she stood out right from the first," Servis said. "She ran second the first time we ran her but was so impressive I put her in a small sprint (stakes) at Gulfstream for her next race. It was late in the meet and I thought most of the heavy heads would have shipped north, but Todd (Pletcher) dropped a Tapit filly called My Miss Tapit in there. She's a nice filly who finished fourth in the (grade 1) Mother Goose (Stakes) the other day."
After the runner-up finish in that stakes try, the April 22 Game Face Stakes, Servis came north looking for options for Actress' next start. It would not be a maiden race.
"I entered her in the Black-Eyed Susan thinking she could get some black type in the graded race, but then the more I looked at the race and saw how much speed was in the field, the more I liked our chances," Servis said.
The speed horses in the race hooked up early, while Actress lagged back in last, 19 1/2 lengths off the pace at first call. The sloppy and sealed surface was tiring, so when Actress unleashed her rally into the stretch, she was rolling while several of her rivals in front of her were getting the staggers. Jockey Nik Suarez had an anxious moment when his filly ran up on a rival's heels in upper stretch, but he steered Actress clear and her all-out surge to the wire got her up in the final strides to win by a head over Pletcher-trained Lights of Medina.
Servis said the Black-Eyed Susan was a taxing race that took a good bit out of his rising star but reported Actress has bounced back in recent days and is training steadily for Saturday's Delaware Oaks. He noted there are several in the Oaks field with early foot, and said a lively pace can only help his filly.
"The faster they go early, the better I'll like it," Servis said with a chuckle. "I'd like nothing better than to have the race fall into our laps."