John Servis, it’s good to have you back.
In 2004, when the popular Smarty Jones was winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, back when Birdstone broke everyone’s heart by beating Smarty in the Belmont, Servis was the unsung Philadelphia-based trainer who came across as so humble, so grateful and, oh yeah, so smart.
We hadn’t seen much of Servis around these parts since then, however, the trainer sticking close to his home base of Parx Racing outside of Philadelphia until all of a sudden, a dozen years post-Smarty Jones, there he was again Friday holding up another historic trophy.
“I think I’m 2-for-4 lifetime at Churchill Downs,” said Servis with a smile. “I don’t think I’m going to bring another horse here.”
Actually, the 57-year-old trainer should come back more often, especially considering that before a record-setting crowd of 124,589, Servis’ Cathryn Sophia easily handled what was supposed to be an evenly matched field to win the 142nd running of the Kentucky Oaks.
After a third-place finish in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month, Servis leaned toward the Eight Belles, a race on the Oaks Day undercard, instead of hooking up with the ultra-talented Songbird in the Oaks. “With Songbird, as talented as she is, it can look like if you want to beat her you have to hook her early,” Servis said. “If we do that, then you’re changing her style and now you’re messing with her head.”
Then, unfortunately, Songbird came down with a low-grade but troublesome fever after winning the Santa Anita Oaks, which took her out of the Kentucky Oaks. When Servis watched Cathryn Sophia work after the Ashland, he decided to stick with his original plan of going to the Oaks.
“She ran a great race,” said Chuck Zacney, head of operations for the owner, Cash is King, which also raced Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex. “John had her prepared and Javier (Castellano) gave her a great ride.”
I think I’m two-for-four lifetime at Churchill Downs. I don’t think I’m going to bring another horse here.
Trainer John Servis
What does it say when you can win the Kentucky Oaks with a Maryland-bred that Zacney bought for $30,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton fall yearling sale at Timonium?
“It says the game is great,” Servis said. “This isn’t the first time those kinds of things happen. Look at Seattle Slew. There have been a lot of really, really good horses that were bought and passed for different reasons. Somebody took a shot and bought him and it turned out really well.”
Look at Smarty Jones, a home-bred for Roy and Pat Chapman of Someday Farm, a small breeding operation in Chester County, Pennsylvania. With Servis as his trainer, Smarty went on to win eight of his nine races and $7.6 million, and had it not been for Birdstone’s rally at Belmont Park that year, Smarty Jones, not American Pharoah, would have been the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed.
For Servis, Smarty Jones was also a once-in-a-lifetime horse. According to Equibase, Servis ranked fourth nationally in earnings in 2004. He slipped back to 71st in 2005 and failed to crack the top 100 from 2006 through 2009. The past five years, he’s ranked 92nd, 89th, 85th, 75th and 72nd in earnings.
Servis did win the 2005 Grade 1 Acorn with Round Pound and he has over 1,000 lifetime victories, but he hasn’t had a Kentucky Derby horse since Smarty Jones. Now he has the second horse of a lifetime, this time a filly.
So what does it feel like to be back a dozen years later and win the world’s greatest race for fillies?
“It feels terrific,” Servis said. “If we would have got beat, I would have felt really good because I knew my filly was bringing her A-game. I knew if she got beat we got beat, that’s just the way it was going to be.
“But it’s nice to know that you’re going into a race like the Oaks and a race like the Kentucky Derby with a little powder in your gun.”
Hey, John Servis, you should come back more often.
Trainers who have won the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks
- Bob Baffert
- Laz Barrera
- Ed Brown
- Frank Childs
- Edward Corrigan
- Peter Coyne
- Bud Delph
- Neil Drysdale
- W.H. Fizer
- Loyd Gentry
- LeRoy Jolley
- Ben Jones
- Jimmy Jones
- D. Wayne Lukas
- Horatio Luro
- William McDaniel
- Thomas McDowell
- John Morris
- Todd Pletcher
- James Rowe
- John Servis
- Woody Stephens
- Herbert Thompson
- John Ward
- Charles Whittingham
- Nick Zito