08/31/2004 11:00PM

From racing abyss, Sarvis has re-emerged

River Downs
Jockey Dean Sarvis has ridden a record 162 winners this year at River Downs.

CINCINNATI - For a jockey in the prime of life, there are few worse punishments than being unable to ride races for a substantial length of time. Whether the reason is injury, illness, or suspension, standing by idly while weeks turn into months and months turn into years is an excruciating experience.

Dean Sarvis has been there. Sarvis, 36, is just now beginning to enjoy life again, having spent a little more than four years away from the one thing he loves doing most: riding races.

"Absolutely, that was by far the worst time of my life," said Sarvis. "It was a pretty rough few years."

Being back in the saddle has brought Sarvis the kind of success he could only dream about while he was away. He has become the dominant rider at River Downs, where the spotlight will shine this weekend with the track's signature events, the Bassinet Stakes on Saturday and the Cradle Stakes on Monday. Sarvis recently became the record-holder for most wins in a year at River; into Thursday, he had ridden 162 winners there.

"It's wonderful what Dean has done this summer," said Kentucky-based trainer Mike Tammaro, Sarvis's uncle and a member of the well-known Tammaro training family. "Everybody in the family couldn't be more happy for him."

The reason for Sarvis's lengthy layoff is a troubling one: He was caught red-handed with an electrical device following the last race at Hoosier Park in Indiana on Nov. 21, 1998. Few crimes in racing are more heinous than using a battery, or "machine," in an attempt to make a horse run faster.

Accordingly, Sarvis was handed a 10-year suspension for the incident by the Indiana Racing Commission. He worked mostly as an exercise rider at 505 Farms in Lexington, Ky., until the IRC granted him a reprieve that allowed him to begin riding again in January 2003. The IRC stipulated that Sarvis was free to seek a license elsewhere as long as he never returned to ride in Indiana again.

"Quite frankly, we wish Mr. Sarvis good luck, and personally I am happy that he is doing as well as he is," said Joe Gorajec, longtime executive director of the IRC. "I think restoring his eligibility was a good gesture by the IRC under the circumstances, although our wishes of good will toward Mr. Sarvis does not in any way affect the fact that he did commit this violation and he was convicted."

Once eligible again, Sarvis mostly struggled to find live mounts and win races. In 2003, he had just 150 mounts and 11 wins while flying under the radar on the Kentucky and Ohio circuits. But his career took a positive turn this spring, when he began working with veteran agent Charlie Wisby. In quick order, Sarvis was the most sought-after and winningest jockey at River.

"I got out and worked hard, got a good agent, and had a little luck," said Sarvis. "You can be good at anything if you want it bad enough and are willing to do the work."

Clearly, the taste of his success is made sweeter after his seemingly interminable time away. As the grandson of the highly successful John Tammaro, who died in February 2001, Sarvis had been working on racetracks in Florida, Canada, and his native Maryland since his early teens. Tammaro's daughter, Toni, is Sarvis's mother and is the sister of active trainers Mike and John 3rd.

Sarvis sorely missed being part of the racetrack mix. Still, he knew he had only himself to blame. Sarvis declined to discuss specifics of the Hoosier incident other than to say: "I don't want to go into the details of it, and I don't want to have hard feelings about it. I'm just glad it's behind me and I did my time. It happened. It's done."

One of the more remarkable aspects to Sarvis's comeback concerns his physique. He is very tall for a jockey, standing much closer to six feet than five; moreover, his family members are stout people. Under different circumstances, Sarvis admits he probably would weigh maybe 150 or 160 pounds. But even during his suspension, "the heaviest I got was 125," he said. "I actually feel a lot better than I did before I got set down. I'm doing some things different and feel a lot stronger now."

An argument might be made that redemption is not possible for a jockey after he has been found guilty of using a battery. But Sarvis and his supporters - and the legal systems in several states - say he served out a fitting penalty, one that should serve as a proper deterrent for others tempted to do the same. And with that sad chapter completed, Sarvis has carried on with an uncommon degree of perseverance.

"Sure, he had a stigma because of all that happened," said Mike Tammaro. "Dean was down and out, no question. But he didn't give up, and we're all very proud of him because of that."

Starting Wednesday, Sarvis will ride at the Turfway fall meet, then move to Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and back to Turfway for the long winter meet. He says he is hoping to sustain the momentum he built at River.

"You don't go anywhere thinking you'll do as well as I have, especially after what I've been through," he said. "You just try to do some good. Work hard, try to get lucky, make things better for yourself."