04/28/2005 11:00PM

For Servis, it was one heck of a run


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - After a life of innocent bliss and relatively clean habits, John Servis tapped into a giddy high last year that, by all reasonable health considerations, should be illegal. He won the Kentucky Derby.

The buzz had legs, and lingered for many months. Then, for awhile, there was even a glimmer of hope that Servis could return for more. But now, cold reality has set in. Rockport Harbor, his talented 3-year-old owned by Rick Porter, must miss the Kentucky Derby, leaving Servis on the sidelines one year after Smarty Jones put him at the center of the racing universe.

It is a long fall, and only the strongest psyches survive. There are trainers - you know who you are - who live and die by participation in the Kentucky Derby, reducing everything else to 51 weeks of waiting for the next Derby Week to come around.

"I'm not going to let myself get like that," Servis said. "But believe me, I can see why they get so excited about going back. I would love to have gotten there this time for Mr. Porter. Who am I kidding? For myself, too, especially with that kind of horse."

When reached Friday morning, Servis was busy packing up in Hot Springs, where he spent the winter at Oaklawn Park with a small string led by Rockport Harbor. Despite Rockport Harbor's loss in the Rebel Stakes and series of physical setbacks, the season was not a total wash for Servis. The filly Round Pond emerged from the shadows to win the Fantasy Stakes, Oaklawn's top race for 3-year-old fillies.

Servis says that so far he has experienced none of the typical symptoms of Kentucky Derby withdrawal. There are no more cravings for mint juleps and Derby Pie. His brief fling as a fan of the Louisville Cardinals died a merciful death. And he has stopped asking his wife, Sherry, questions like "Did Andy Beyer call?" and "How do you think this tie will look on TV?"

Indeed, Servis is so secure in his role as last year's flavor that he will be honoring commitments to be part of the Derby scene. He will put in an appearance at the annual Derby Trainers Dinner, glad-hand at an Oaks Day event sponsored by Visa, and then join the crowd on May 7, when the field for the 131st Derby will go off for the first time since 2003 without a John Servis runner. Shed no tears, though.

"In my heart, I know this wasn't my last chance," Servis said. "We've got a really good group of 2-year-olds, so hopefully one of them will jump up and be something special."

The avalanche of Smarty Jones notoriety that descended upon Servis undoubtedly will pay off. He remains loyal to his home base at Philadephia Park, but new clients are waiting in the wings, and with an increasing amount of young horses in his care, Servis seems poised for a career breakout.

"The better horses you get, you just can't stay in the north in the winter and train them," Servis said. "Now I think I've reached a stage where it will be an annual thing. The Hot Springs deal is working in the winter, then back home for the summer, and hopefully the slot machine money will start flowing in Philly. If it doesn't, I will have to move on."

True to his Mid-Atlantic roots, Servis is throwing his 2005 Derby support to Afleet Alex and Delaware-based trainer Tim Ritchey, who is making his Derby debut. Servis, a rookie himself last year, offered all first-timers free nuggets of advice.

"The bigger deal you make out of something, the bigger it gets," Servis said. "You get fired at so many times that you'll get in situations where you start talking before you think what you're talking about. And I'll tell you one thing - if you're hiding the truth, you're in trouble that week, buddy. Because the truth is going to come out."

This time last year, Servis had just settled into Churchill Downs with Smarty Jones after a brief stop at Keeneland. On the Saturday before the Derby, Smarty worked like a champ, leaving Servis with the glowing impression that he had the horse to beat.

Now, Servis must be content with the memory of a Derby win that made the cover of Sports Illustrated, followed by an overwhelming victory at the Preakness. Then came the Belmont, the gallant loss of the Triple Crown, and the popular colt's subsequent retirement.

"It does seem like a long time ago," Servis said. "But you know, it was almost like it was written before it even took place. Like it was a play, and we were just acting it out."

Servis visited Smarty Jones recently at Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, where the colt was retired to stud. It was a grand reunion.

"You cannot believe the show he put on," Servis said. "For what must have been a solid ten minutes, this sum'bitch reared and kicked and bucked and played. He ran around that paddock five or six times, motoring right past where we were standing against the fence. There were a bunch of us there, and when we walked away I was the only one with specks of dirt on my jacket. My wife said he did it on purpose. He wanted to give me a little piece of his new home to take back with me."