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Servis put together priceless team
BENSALEM, Pa. - At first glance, the pedigree of Smarty Jones and his handlers might not suggest Kentucky Derby winners. Dig a little deeper into the history of the horse and his human connections, however, and you will find that Smarty Jones's victory on May 1 was not an accident, but an accident waiting to happen.
In his pedigree, Smarty Jones's family traces back to Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and Derby runner-up Dapper Dan. And, in the pedigree of his handlers - who are based at unheralded Philadelphia Park - you will find men and women who worked with Derby-winning horses, trainers, and other champions.
Led by the savvy blue-collar trainer John Servis, the team that prepared Smarty Jones for his run to glory had all the necessary experience to compete with the higher-profile outfits.
Among those who played the biggest roles in Smarty Jones's development were Bobby Velez, the former exercise rider of 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck; barn foreman Bill Foster, a jack-of-all-trades who once worked for the 1987 Derby-winning trainer Jack Van Berg; assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly, who galloped both the mother and father of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled; groom Mario Arriaga, who while working for four-time Derby winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas was the groom of champion Serena's Song; and exercise rider Pete Van Trump, a former Quarter Horse rider with 20-plus years of riding experience.
Before this year, the closest Servis came to Derby glory was in 1977 when, as an employee of trainer Scotty Schulhofer at Belmont Park, he watched trainer Billy Turner work with the headstrong Seattle Slew, stabled nearby. Servis recalled how on many mornings Seattle Slew would be out on the track for 30 minutes or more as Turner attempted to get him to relax.
"I certainly respected the job Billy Turner did with that horse and I read a lot about it and tried to follow a lot of what he did,'' said Servis, 45. "As far as I'm concerned, he never got the credit he deserved. That horse was an outstanding horse, but he could very easily have been a head case.''
Smarty Jones - who became the first undefeated horse to win the Derby since Slew - could have headed down that path. He has a ton of speed that needs to be harnessed for anything good to happen.
Velez, who is engaged to Donnelly, knew something about speed horses from his days riding Spend a Buck. Velez, 57, often gets on horses for Servis when he's done training his own four-horse stable at Philly Park. He galloped Smarty Jones for almost three months before the horse was shipped to Oaklawn Park on Jan. 10.
"One thing that reminded me of Spend a Buck is that when you ask him to go he got really low to the ground and stretched his legs,'' Velez said. "You can feel every muscle get extended. They stretch their legs very far, more than they usually do. Also, when you think they've had enough, they always look for something more and they find it.''
Servis wanted Velez to go to Oaklawn with him, but Velez said he had to stay with his horses here.
"They're cheap horses, but they're my babies," Velez said. "I wish I was there, but I don't have any regrets.''
Van Trump, 39, was actually the first exercise rider for Smarty Jones. A native of Missouri, Van Trump and a friend would buy horses, break them, and sell them for a modest profit. Van Trump then got into Quarter Horse riding for several years before switching back to Thoroughbreds.
In the late 1980's, he came to Philadelphia Park, where he began working for Bobby Camac and Servis.
Van Trump said he and Servis have developed a rapport where they don't need to talk much.
"I gallop him the way he likes them galloped,'' Van Trump said. "We have just that thing where he never has to tell me what to do. I can almost think what he says or wants them to do.''
Van Trump went to Oaklawn, but returned to Philadelphia in late January. "I was uncomfortable and bored,'' he said.
Servis hired a local rider at Oaklawn but didn't like the way things were going. On Feb. 14, he called Van Trump, who was itching to get back to Smarty Jones. Van Trump drove through the night to get there. Two weeks later, Smarty Jones won the Southwest Stakes.
"I'm very confident in him,'' Servis said of Van Trump. "I know when he gets off a horse and says that didn't feel right I better take a good look because something's coming. He's really good like that. My big concern now is to try to keep him out of the feed tub. Pete's about 170 [pounds], and he needs all 170 to gallop this horse, believe me.''
Said Van Trump: "If I thought the weight was an issue I'd be the first one to tell John, 'I'm too heavy, this horse is getting sore.' ''
As a youngster, Servis remembers his father, Joe, a former trainer, telling him that Oaklawn Park was one of the best places to train horses. That, Servis said, and the fact that Oaklawn "was the path of least resistance'' as far as Derby preps were concerned were the reasons he decided to put Smarty Jones on the Arkansas trail to the Triple Crown.
But sending 14 horses to Oaklawn meant leaving approximately 30 in Philadelphia. Servis, who has approximately 12 owners, said he had no worries because those horses were in the hands of Donnelly. While Servis was at Oaklawn, Donnelly held the fort well as the Servis barn went 12 for 43 (28 percent) at Philadelphia from Jan. 1-April 1.
"Maureen's just unbelievable,'' Servis said. "I'd like to clone her, to be honest with you. The whole time we were gone we were winning races left and right. My owners were very happy.''
A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Donnelly originally thought of being a veterinarian. But she changed her mind, went to work on the track, and hoped to train. She worked a couple of years for trainer Jan Nerud and Tartan Farm. Among the horses she galloped were Fappiano and Gana Facil, the father and mother of Unbridled.
When Tartan dispersed, Donnelly went to work as an assistant for Spasoja Dimitrijevic, who had been as an assistant to Nerud. She left to train on her own for a short time.
After a few years of training, Donnelly, 42, bounced from job to job before joining Servis in 1999, the year Jostle came to the barn. Donnelly was the exercise rider for Jostle, who won 8 of 20 starts, including three Grade 1 stakes, and earned nearly $1.4 million.
Now, Donnelly gets the horses ready to train in sets and directs the help while Servis rides the pony or watches his horses train from the front side.
Donnelly said the key to the barn's success is that almost all of the employees have been there for a significant amount of time. "This is like a family here,'' she said.
Mario Arriaga, a 31-year-old Guatemalan, joined Servis about 2 1/2 years ago. His brother, Anibal, was already working for Servis. At various times, Mario Arriaga worked for trainers Bobby Frankel and D. Wayne Lukas. While working for Lukas, he was the groom of Serena's Song, although not during her 1995 championship 3-year-old season.
Servis credits Arriaga as playing "the most important'' role in Smarty Jones's success.
"He knows this horse inside and out,'' Servis said. "He's rubbed him since he first came here and he's done an outstanding job. The horse has carried his weight so well all through this campaign and it's all Mario.''
Bill Foster, 64, is the elder statesman of the barn. While he is known for doubling as the hotwalker for Smarty Jones, Foster is the barn foreman and does a lot of the administrative work that allows Servis to concentrate on the horses.
In the 1970's, Bill Foster worked as a groom for Jack Van Berg. But, Foster fell in love with a girl from New Hampshire and left the track. He worked as a truck driver and in a lumberyard. The relationship didn't last, and Foster returned to his native Unionville, Pa.
It wasn't until 1989 that Foster returned to the track, showing up one day at the Philadelphia Park stable gate where he had a security guard announce that there was someone looking for work.
"John came down and got me and I've been here ever since,'' Foster said.
Foster developed into the foreman for Servis and takes care of hiring staff, making shipping arrangements, contacting jockey agents, etc.
"Being in this region there's a lot of shipping going on; we run at a lot of different racetracks,'' Servis said. "He knows every morning who I enter. Up until Smarty shipped home, I haven't talked to my van guy but once a week. Bill talks with my owners every day, and then when the training's over I can go back and sit in my office and I can get my work done.''
Foster told Servis that he wanted to retire at the end of this year but that he definitely wanted to be around Smarty Jones. Foster slept in the tack room at Oaklawn and was never more than 20 feet away from the big horse.
Foster believes Servis was the key for Smarty Jones.
"When I started with him he had a lot of claiming horses, but they all produced," Foster said. "Every horse we ever had, if they had any ability in them, he got it out of them. And this job he's done with Smarty Jones is absolutely masterful. I told him privately I don't know of anybody in the country who could have done any better.''