06/05/2012 3:25PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Servis advises O'Neill to enjoy the ride

Barbara D. Livingston
John Servis has not had a horse run in the Triple Crown series since Smarty Jones won the Derby and Preakness in 2004.

BENSALEM, Pa. − John Servis has been where Doug O’Neill is now − on the precipice of racing history.

So as O’Neill prepares I’ll Have Another for his attempt to become Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner in Saturday’s 144th Belmont Stakes, Servis offers this bit of advice.

“Slow down and enjoy the ride, because you’ll look up and it’ll be five years down the line, and you’ll [wonder], ‘What happened?’ ” Servis said. “It just flies by, it really does. Next thing you know it’s over, and it’s a long time getting back − if you get back.”

Servis was the trainer of Smarty Jones, who in 2004 came to the Belmont Stakes as the undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with a chance to capture the Triple Crown. In front of a record crowd of 120,139 at Belmont, Smarty Jones came into the stretch with a clear lead, but he was run down inside the sixteenth pole by Birdstone, falling a length short.

Servis, 53, has not made it back to the Triple Crown series, nor has he left this suburb of Philadelphia, where the track formerly known as Philadelphia Park is now the track and casino − some would say casino and track − currently known as Parx Racing.

Servis is content to be at Parx, where his 17 wins from 59 starters have him tied for 10th in the trainer standings at the current meet. His son 24-year-old son Blane works as his assistant. His 21-year-old son, John Tyler, works on the gate crew.

“I’ve had some opportunities to go to New York, and I haven’t,” said Servis, who has been married to his wife Sherry for 31 years. “My life’s good. I’m happy, I’m comfortable here.”

Servis spoke in the office of his new barn on the backside of Parx. The barn is one of 13 that have been torn down and rebuilt in the last few years. Ultimately, all 37 barns on the Parx backstretch will be rebuilt. The barns have 42 stalls with wider shed rows, matted flooring, fans in every stall and indoor wash racks.

The new barns are a direct result of the success of Smarty Jones.

Smarty Jones’s run through the 2004 Triple Crown help put the spotlight on a Pennsylvania racing industry on the brink of extinction. In 2006, casinos were legalized at racetracks and the purse structure at Parx has gone from $120,000 a day to $270,000.

“He was the driving force for the slots,” said Sal Sinatra, the director of racing at Parx. “I remember attending the hearings with John; the senators were like little kids, they were looking for his autograph. They fell in love with that horse.”

Smarty Jones, a son of Elusive Quality owned by Pat and Roy Chapman, won the first three starts of his career by a combined 27 3/4 lengths. He wintered at Oaklawn, where he won the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby which propelled him to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite.

Under unheralded Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones splashed his way to a 2 3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby − his first start on Lasix − and galloped to an 11 1/2-length victory in the Preakness.

Entering the Belmont, he was being compared to Seattle Slew, the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.

In the Belmont, Smarty Jones was a bit anxious. He broke from the gate running, and Elliott knew right away he could be in trouble.

“Sometimes you know early in the race what’s happening is not going to work, and that was one of them deals,” said Elliott, who remains a fixture at Parx. “When we went into the first turn he was just rank. He never settled enough to go a mile and a half.”

It didn’t help that Jerry Bailey, on Eddington, and Alex Solis, on Rock Hard Ten, were asking their horses to stay within a length of Smarty Jones, prompting him to go faster than he wanted.

“I don’t want to say they went after him to get him beat,” Servis said. “I think they went after him to try and beat him.”

Smarty Jones put those horses away and turned for home with a three-length lead. But Birdstone, under a persevering Edgar Prado, collared and passed Smarty Jones, extinguishing the wall of sound that was Belmont Park into a mausoleum.

“I got over it pretty quick,” Servis said. “Can’t cry over spilled milk. Can’t change it.”

A month later, Smarty Jones was diagnosed with bone bruising. When doctors couldn’t assure the Chapmans the horse could return to his full ability, the decision was made to retire him. At first he stood at Three Chimneys in Kentucky. He now stands at Northview Stallion Station in Pennsylvania and shuttles to the Southern Hemisphere in the summer.

Like any horseman, Servis wants to get back to the Triple Crown races. In 2005, he had Rockport Harbor, a talented colt who missed the Triple Crown because of foot problems. He trained Rockport Harbor for Rick Porter, an owner with whom he parted ways in 2006 but with whom he recently reunited.

Servis thought he had a chance to get back to the Derby this year with either Adirondack King or Yourhonorandglory, but neither proved good enough.

“I’d like to get back, but I don’t want to go back with just a horse,” Servis said.

As for I’ll Have Another, Servis said he thinks the horse can do what Smarty Jones couldn’t.

“His last race to me was impressive − not that the Derby wasn’t − but I thought his last race was much better than the Derby,” Servis said. “It looked like Bodemeister had everything his own way, and he was drawing away through the stretch, and he came and got him.”

The following day, Servis will go back to work, attending to his 42-horse string, hoping that somewhere in the dozen or so 2-year-olds in his new barn is his next Triple Crown hero.

“I got a new barn, new office,” Servis said. “Now I need a new Derby horse, and I’ll be good.”