06/09/2016 10:40AM

Servis, Zacney back on Belmont's biggest day with Cathryn Sophia

Barbara D. Livingston
For the first time since Smarty Jones finished second in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, trainer John Servis and owner Chuck Zacney are back on Belmont Stakes Day with Cathryn Sophia, winner of the Kentucky Oaks and likely favorite for the Acorn.

Trainer John Servis and owner Chuck Zacney are no strangers to Belmont Stakes Day, but it has been a long time between visits.

Servis brought the undefeated Smarty Jones to the 2004 Belmont as a heavy favorite in search of completing the Triple Crown. But after opening a big lead, Smarty Jones was run down by Birdstone and beaten a length.

Zacney and trainer Tim Ritchey fared better the next year with Afleet Alex, the third-place Derby finisher who had won the Preakness by almost five lengths despite clipping heels and stumbling badly at the top of the stretch. Afleet Alex romped in the Belmont by seven lengths at even-money.

Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex were honored in back-to-back years with Eclipse Awards as champion 3-year-old male.

Neither Servis nor Zacney has attended a Belmont Stakes card since, but they will be back as a team Saturday with Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia, the likely favorite in the Grade 1, $700,000 Acorn.

Like Smarty Jones, a Pennsylvania homebred by the Someday Farm of Roy and Patricia Chapman, and Afleet Alex, a $75,000 2-year-old buy, Cathryn Sophia has overachieved. Zacney bought her for $30,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic fall yearling sale in Timonium, Md.

When she first came to Servis last year, she “wasn’t the best-moving filly,” he said. “We stopped on her a few times and pin-fired her shins.”

Once Cathryn Sophia began training on a regular basis, she rapidly improved. She is now 5 for 6 with $949,720 in earnings.

Servis and Zacney only began working together in 2015. So far, they have won 7 races from 17 starters.

“I know John through Parx,” said Zacney, who lives in Pennsylvania.

Servis has won the Acorn before. In 2005, Round Pond took the Grade 1 mile for 3-year-old fillies for Servis and the Fox Hill Farms of Rick Porter. Servis did two tours as Porter’s trainer, with the first ending in 1995. During their second go-round, Servis and Porter won major races with the likes of Round Pond, Jostle, Zonk, and Rockport Harbor.

But following their split in early 2006, Servis slipped from national view. When Cathryn Sophia won the Grade 2 Forward Gal in January at Gulfstream Park, it was Servis’s first graded stakes victory since Round Pond won the Azeri Breeders’ Cup at Oaklawn Park in 2006.

“I didn’t have the quality,” Servis said. “Now, Chuck has brought that back.”

While Servis didn’t have the stock to compete at the game’s top level, he never stopped winning. He has averaged 50 to 60 victories a year and about $2 million in purse earnings. Not bad for a boy who grew up a mile down Jefferson Avenue from the Charles Town racetrack.

Servis’s father, Joe, is in the Charles Town Hall of Fame. He was a jockey, a manager for the Jockeys’ Guild, and for many years a steward at the West Virginia track.

John Servis took a job at a local breeding farm when he was 14 and still in high school.

“I already knew then what I wanted to do,” he said.

Servis went to Florida and worked for Scotty Schulhofer. After being injured, he did a stint as a jockey’s agent at Penn National. He then took a position with trainer Mark Reid, first as a foreman and then as his assistant.

“Mark polished me up good,” Servis said. “From Charles Town, I was okay leg-wise. Mark taught me the business and ownership end, how to handle people.”

Servis opened his own stable at Philadelphia Park in 1984. He had four horses and no help.

“I did everything myself but get on them,” he said, “and I could have done that too, but I was busy around the barn.”

Servis, 57, has won 1,511 races and more than $45 million in purses. He currently has a full barn of 42 horses at Parx Racing and another 18, including Cathryn Sophia, at Monmouth Park. His brother, Jason, a trainer, is stabled in an adjacent barn at Monmouth and also has horses at Belmont Park.

John and Jason have two sisters, Laurie, who is married to trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., and Jodie. John and his wife, Sherry, have two sons, Blane, who is a trainer at Parx, and Tyler, who is John’s assistant at Monmouth.

Zacney started the Cash Is King LLC partnership in 2004 with four partners but now owns almost all of the horses himself. Cash Is King found success almost immediately with Afleet Alex, but the stable’s lone graded stakes win between the Belmont Stakes and Cathryn Sophia came with Afleet Again in the 2010 Withers at Aqueduct.

“I love the game, and now it’s fun again,” Zacney said. “From 2010 to 2015, it was tough and not a whole lot of fun. We didn’t have a lot of luck. It’s great to be back on the big stage.”

Zacney is the owner and president of the SIRRUS Group, a medical billing company that has 150 employees. He currently owns about 15 horses and recently bought five 2-year-olds for $580,000 at the Midlantic sale at Timonium.

Zacney owns shares in Afleet Alex and still supports the 14-year-old stallion. Zacney said he and Joe Lerro, an original partner in Cash Is King, sent three mares to him this year.

It’s especially fitting that Servis and Zacney return to Belmont Day together because Servis indirectly played a role in Zacney forming a syndicate in 2004, the year he bought Afleet Alex.

“I was in a small claiming group in Louisiana in the late ‘90s,” Zacney said. “But I got caught up in the whole Smarty Jones thing, and that’s what got me going, got me wanting to be more involved in the game. I put a small partnership together, and Cash Is King was formed.”