04/29/2004 12:00AM

Servis with a smile


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Servis has spent a lifetime preparing for the Kentucky Derby. And now, at age 45, he finally has made it. Servis will send out his first Derby starter on Saturday with Smarty Jones, who will try to become the first unbeaten horse to win the Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977.

His road to Churchill Downs has been filled with detours. Servis was born into racing, but his father, a former jockey who became a steward, discouraged him from going into the sport. Like all stubborn teens, Servis rebelled. He dived headfirst into racing. He groomed horses, worked on a farm, served as an exercise rider, and was a jockey agent. He finally turned to training and for years has been one of the most respected at his craft in the mid-Atlantic region.

No matter the result Saturday, he already has one victory.

"I did all I could to keep you away," his father, Joe, told Servis, "but I'm so proud of you."

Servis's brother, Jason, is a trainer, and a younger sister is married to a trainer. That passion for racing has touched another generation, too. Servis's two teenage sons attend the races and will be at the Derby. Blaine, 16, "comes out once in a while," Servis said, but 13-year-old Tyler "is hooked."

"He's got the fever," Servis said. "He'll be at the barn every morning. And if I don't let him, he'll get mad."

Servis grew up in the shadow of Charles Town Races in West Virginia, where his father first worked as a jockey. Joe Servis became a steward and was in that role at Charles Town for 26 years before retiring. His brother Jack, Servis's uncle, was a jockey agent. If through nothing but osmosis, Servis became engrossed in racing.

"I went to my dad when I was 14 and told him I wanted to be a trainer," Servis said. "He didn't want us at the track, and we lived a half-mile from the track."

Servis convinced his father to let him spend a summer working with horses. He began at the bottom, mucking out stalls at a nearby farm. At 16, Servis started working at the track, galloping horses. At 17, he got a horse as a graduation present. He bought a couple more. He took one of them - Mr. Spaceman, in whom Servis had great pride - to show off to a local trainer, Wayne Kirt.

"Son, don't put another oat in him," Kirt bluntly said. Servis was crushed, but he listened. Two days later, Servis sold Mr. Spaceman for $500, a profit of $150.

Servis lost his two remaining horses through claims, then drove to Florida and wound up galloping horses for trainer Scotty Schulhofer. Two years later, while playing softball in a league at Monmouth Park, Servis shattered bones in both legs while sliding in an attempt to break up a double play. He returned home and was fitted with a cast from the hip down. He attended a high school football game at which his sister was a cheerleader and met another cheerleader, Sherry, who later became his wife.

The cast prevented Servis from working regularly with horses. So he became a jockey's agent and worked a circuit that included Atlantic City and Penn National. When he was well enough to work with horses again, Servis got a job assisting Mark Reid, one of the mid-Atlantic's top trainers in the 1980's.

"I took a huge pay cut, but it was worth it," Servis said.

He went on his own in 1984 and has been based in Pennsylvania most of that time. Servis lives less than a mile from the stable gate at Philadelphia Park in Bensalem. He has been content to train there, but occasionally a top-class horse puts Servis in the national spotlight. Jostle won the Alabama Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks in New York as a 3-year-old filly in 2000.

As with Barclay Tagg, who trained Funny Cide to win last year's Derby, Servis is a well-regarded horseman who has largely flown below the radar. Not only is Smarty Jones his first runner in the Derby, Servis has never attended the Derby. He watched last year's Derby from his living room.

And although Smarty Jones could win a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park by adding the Derby to previous victories in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes, Servis said he thinks about his potential 10 percent share only when he is asked about it. He has but one desire.

"I just want to see them throw the roses over him," Servis said.