05/26/2004 11:00PM

It's Servis's turn to take a bow


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jockey Stewart Elliott has been described as cool under pressure aboard Smarty Jones. Indeed, his rides have been excellent.

Yet the most important participant in the Smarty Jones story - beyond the horse - has been trainer John Servis. His management of Smarty Jones has been flawless, as has his preparation for the big races.

When Smarty Jones crossed the wire first in the Preakness, I heard numerous people rave about the ride from Elliott. No doubt, he rode a smart race - getting Smarty Jones away cleanly from the gate, putting him in a stalking position, and diving toward the inside to engage Lion Heart on the turn.

But the horse won by 11 1/2 lengths, not a nose. I would bet that any rider in the jockeys' room at Pimlico could have substituted for Elliott that afternoon and won.

That is not a knock on Elliott, merely a compliment to Smarty Jones and the skilled preparation by Servis in getting him ready for a peak performance.

I was more impressed by how Servis got him to the race than by how Elliott steered him around the track. Servis essentially kept Smarty Jones bottled up at Philadelphia Park, not working him between the Derby and the Preakness. The conservative training between races also included easy gallops with a pony.

Servis's intention was clear. Knowing Smarty Jones's history of working quickly, Servis did not want him doing too much with just a two-week window between the Derby and Preakness.

The plan worked, obviously. Smarty Jones whistled, whereas those Derby runners who worked leading up to the Preakness - Borrego and Imperialism - finished off the board. The Cliff's Edge also worked following the Derby, but was scratched from the Preakness because of a foot injury.

Can you imagine how Servis would have been second-guessed if Smarty Jones had lost the Preakness? Critics would have said that his inexperience in Triple Crown races cost Smarty Jones the race.

Instead, Servis now has Smarty Jones a week away from a date with destiny in the Belmont, because he knew his horse and trusted his instincts.

For those who have monitored his training of Smarty Jones in the weeks following the Preakness, it is apparent that Servis is not merely copying his preparations leading up to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. With three weeks between races, he has let Smarty Jones do more in his daily training at Philadelphia Park, and a breeze was scheduled for Friday morning to prepare him for the longest race of his career.

Servis has done what is best for his horse, not by looking at what everyone else is doing.

It is refreshing to see a newcomer to the Triple Crown races do so well. A lot of handicappers think that unless Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, or Nick Zito train a horse, it can't win a Triple Crown race.

Those guys clearly know how to win races. They aren't the only ones, though.

Servis has not only won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Smarty Jones, but he also won his owners, Someday Farm, a $5 million bonus by sweeping the Oaklawn prep races leading up to the Derby. They will win another $5 million bonus if Smarty Jones wins the Belmont.

Smarty Jones has done everything right. So, too, has Servis, even going as far as to share the horse with the fans, the people that fuel this game. Can you imagine trainer Neil Drysdale allowing Fusaichi Pegasus to be galloped in front of 8,500 people, as Servis did with Smarty Jones at Philadelphia Park last week?

Smarty Jones would be a deserving winner of the Triple Crown. If Servis manages to stretch Smarty Jones's speed over 1 1/2 miles, he will likely all but lock up an Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer. He will certainly be on my ballot.