John Servis facing a media barrage in 2004

John Servis facing a media barrage in 2004

Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

John Servis Back at the Preakness After 14 Years

Bringing Diamond King to Baltimore has been very different than Smarty Jones in 2004.

About 14 years ago, John Servis was at the center of the storm.

When Smarty Jones  returned to train on the main track at Philadelphia Park following his 2004 Kentucky Derby (G1) win, there was a media horde ready to take it all in and hang on every one of the trainer's words.

The spotlight on the Bensalem, Pa., racetrack was unfamiliar. So much so that when Servis' wife, Sherry, saw what was happening at the barn, she could not stand for it.

"It was every day, 10-15 reporters, and I had 50 horses to train. The first day he went out to the track, my wife came out—and she never comes out," Servis said. "She came to hang out and enjoy it. She watched what was going on, and she pulled me to the side and said, 'This has got to stop. I'm going to take over. You watch your horses train.'"

Sherry served as her husband's media coordinator the rest of the way—to Smarty Jones' 11 1/2-length Preakness Stakes (G1) win and his soul-crushing loss to Birdstone  in the Belmont Stakes (G1)—and planned every interview down to the minute.

It was an amusing thought the week of the 2018 Preakness, as Servis reclined in his office chair, with only the occasional jockey agent to pop in every once in a while.

"The memories are fresh. It doesn't seem like that long ago," the 59-year-old trainer said of the Triple Crown trail with the horse he still calls 'Smarty' in 2004. "It was good, but it was crazy. There were tents up with Danishes and coffee for all the media every morning. They had those metal fences around the barn and security, so nobody could get in."

The atmosphere in Bensalem this year—Philadelphia Park is now called Parx Racing—leading up to the Preakness was that of everyday business, which for Servis includes meticulously feeling legs and watching his horses jog outside of his trackside barn at the north end of Parx.

Since 2005, he's won 732 more races (including 11 graded stakes) and earned millions of dollars in purses. Although he has more help now to ease his load, the guy who slept in his truck outside his barn the night before the 1985 Pennsylvania Derby (G2)—just to make sure nothing would go wrong with Jacque l'Heureux ahead of his first big race as a trainer—is still there.

But the May 19 Preakness will be Servis' first start in a Triple Crown race since Smarty Jones, and it's not only the atmosphere that felt different around the Parx barn area.

With Justify seeking the Derby-Preakness double, Cash is King, D. J. Stable, and LC Racing's Diamond King—the winner of the local Preakness prep, the April 21 Federico Tesio Stakes—is an afterthought for most.

"I don't need any publicists now," Servis said with a laugh. "I can tell you that. It's a different feeling. Obviously not the fanfare going into the Preakness, and not the pressure."

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The son of Joe Servis—the former jockey, steward, and manager of the Jockeys' Guild—John Servis held various racetrack jobs in the Mid-Atlantic area and became a jockey's agent in the 1970s, but he hated it.

Eventually the Charles Town, W.Va., native jumped at an opportunity to join trainer Mark Reid's barn at Philadelphia Park as a foreman, then graduated to assistant trainer in a matter of months and went out on his own in 1984.

In 2004, a call that changed his life came from Reid, who then was retired. Roy and Patricia Chapman had a homebred with some talent and were looking for a trainer at Philadelphia Park, near where they lived.

The Chapmans asked Reid for help, and he recommended Servis. Servis had trained a multiple grade 1 winner previously—Jostle, who won the Alabama (G1) and Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), along with four other graded stakes in 1999-2000—and his mentor thought he was a fit.

But Servis didn't have room in his barn. As he remembers, he nearly turned down Smarty Jones.

"At the time I was packed. I was loaded. I had a lot of horses," Servis remembered. "I said, 'Mark, I can't take him. I've got no room. I've got clients I've been training for years with, and they've got horses waiting to come in from the farm. If I bring in new horses here, they're going to be pissed.'

"He told me, 'I'm only going to ask you this one time. Do it for me.'"

If not for Reid's insistence, Smarty Jones would have gone elsewhere, but it was a building effort for Servis to get that kind of horse. When he landed Fox Hill Farm as a client, things began to change.

"That was probably my first opportunity to get good horses (consistently)," Servis said. "And that's what got me Smarty."

But he never left his base at Philadelphia Park. Parx is uniquely situated within driving distance of several racetracks, and although he was tempted to leave at points in his career, he's proven he can win all kinds of races from a racetrack some believe to be in a lower tier.

"I had opportunities to go other places, but at the time it didn't fit," Servis said. "My kids were in school here, they were young, they were racing year-round here, and you can ship anywhere you need to ship to run.

"Yesterday I was at five different racetracks—Belmont, Parx, Pimlico, Monmouth, and Gulfstream." he said of his racing slate May 13, as he held a mound of condition books, bound by a stretched-out rubber band. "Delaware, even Charles Town for stakes, Penn National—they're all there."

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Servis has run at Pimlico Race Course on plenty of occasions since 2004, so he's not exactly brimming with emotion about a return to Baltimore to run in the Preakness—at least not yet.

"I'd get a lot more sentimental if I was 2-1," the trainer joked of Diamond King, who, along with Sporting Chance, is the longest shot on the morning line at 30-1.

Diamond King has a quality record of four wins from six starts and $222,600 in earnings, and he obviously lacks the panache of Smarty Jones. But Servis said the bay colt has about the same physical stature as the 2004 Preakness winner.

"He's not a big horse, but Smarty was a little horse. But for a little horse, (Diamond King) has a long stride," Servis said. "And he's grown up a lot, where now he has a really good mind. Before he was a little anxious, as young horses are, but now he's matured."

Cash is King's Chuck Zacney admits he's steered Servis toward a Preakness try, but that doesn't mean the Quality Road  colt can't run well. Servis' initial plan was to run the May 12 Peter Pan Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park, with future spots like the Ohio Derby (G3), Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1), and Pennsylvania Derby in the future.

"I nudged him in the Preakness direction, and we went back and forth on the Peter Pan. It's more about us not being back for 13 years, and we have some good memories there," Zacney said in reference to his best horse, Afleet Alex , who won the Preakness in 2005, a year after Smarty Jones.

Those types of spots, as well as a run in the Preakness, speak to Servis' opinion of Diamond King. The trainer feels Diamond King has the potential to be a top-quality horse, even if Saturday isn't the time the colt will reach it.

Tesio winners used to be at least a minor threat in the Preakness—only one has won (Deputed Testamony in 1983), but Oliver's Twist ran a close second in 1995, and Broad Brush (1986), Rock Point (1989), and Icabod Crane (2008) have been the only others to place—but the race has been a non-factor for some time. The only Tesio winner to finish in the top half of a Preakness field since 1995 (from 12 starters) was Icabod Crane. The 11 others have averaged a finish of 8.5 out of an average field size of 10.8. No Tesio winner has gone off at shorter odds than 9-1 since Private Terms left the gate at 3-1 in 1988 (average of 24.92-1).

"If he hits the board, I'll be tickled to death, but most important is coming out of the race good (to continue on his 3-year-old campaign)," Servis said. "Quite frankly, I don't think he's at that level yet. ... He's not there, but I think it's there. He just hasn't matured enough to put it together. Hopefully by the Haskell and PA Derby, he's shown enough."

His immaturity was frighteningly on display in Diamond King's first stakes start, the Nov. 25 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2), when he clipped heels in the first turn and unseated jockey Frankie Pennington. The Kentucky Jockey Club would have been a good measuring stick for a race like the Preakness, as the field was full of names familiar to the Triple Crown trail, including Preakness runners Lone Sailor, Quip, and Bravazo.

Even in his Tesio win, Servis said Diamond King may have waited on the other horses once he got a clear lead in the stretch.

"He's learned to settle," Servis said. "Him not settling—that's what got him dropped in the Kentucky race. He didn't break sharp, and he's running up on horses."

All the qualities that have carried Servis to success in the training game—which include being patient with a horse like Diamond King—are what attracted Zacney to start working with Servis in 2015. The personal touch, along with a win in the 2016 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) with Cathryn Sophia, has kept him a client.

"He's out at Parx, but he has so much talent," Zacney said. "He has so many intangibles. He communicates so well, he takes his time, and when you're spending sometimes millions of dollars, that's important. With other trainers, we might only be able to talk for a couple minutes, or you'll get a text. With John, we're talking for 15, 20 minutes, several times a week, and not just about the horses. It's not just about business. He's a special friend.

"He's a hidden jewel."