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Servis's rise mirrors Charles Town's
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A rich history permeates the tri-state area that surrounds the racetrack burg of Charles Town. Just a few miles north of here, John Brown and his abolitionist cohorts stormed the national armory in 1859 in Harpers Ferry in old Virginia, stoking the fires that led to the Civil War. A few years later and a few more miles north, Barbara Fritchie defied Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate soldiers in Frederick, Md., in one of the many turning points in that same war.
Other events and people have helped to shape this slice of the Shenandoah Valley, including a handful of noted sportsmen. Hack Wilson, whose 1930 record of 191 runs batted in remains a major league baseball record, lived and is buried in nearby Martinsburg, W.Va., the same town that produced Fulton Walker, who returned a kickoff for a then-record 98-yard touchdown in the 1983 Super Bowl. And James Jett, born and raised in Charles Town, was an Olympic gold-medal sprinter at the 1992 Barcelona games who went on to a distinguished National Football League career.
But there has been very little to brag about in horse racing. Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack had the proverbial cup of coffee here in 1952 before going on to become a five-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, and standout jockeys Howard Grant, Jesse Davidson, and Vince Bracciale Jr. also got their starts here. Otherwise, since the Charles Town Races opened in the middle of the Great Depression on Dec. 2, 1933, the track and its downtrodden horses and horsemen have been more likely to be scorned than praised by their racing brethren, who knew the track as little more than a grim repository for broken-down nags.
The Charles Town Races, resuscitated by a slots revolution that began in September 1997, not only has become a prominent player among the Eastern Seaboard's smorgasbord of racetracks, but also can proudly announce itself as the producer of the newest star in Thoroughbred racing: trainer John Servis, who has the undefeated Smarty Jones on the threshold of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years.
This combination of newfound riches and instant fame has given Charles Town and its close-knit community an overwhelming sense of pride, something that was missing for decades.
"The slots saved racing in Charles Town and created an enormous economic impact on this county," said Roger Ramey, a former longtime West Virginia racing commissioner and the track's vice president of public affairs since 1997. "And we've all latched onto John and Smarty Jones. For a local boy to do what he's done, there's no comparison."
A trailer park between two racetracks
John Charles Servis was born Oct. 25, 1958, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Charles Town (population 3,500), the seat of Jefferson County (population 45,000). He lived with his parents and siblings in the old Kratz trailer park between the Charles Town Races and its next-door neighbor, Shenandoah Park, a track that disbanded racing in 1975 but remains open as a run-down training center.
"Our trailer was 41 feet long and 18 feet wide," said Joe Servis, John's father. "Pretty comfortable."
In 1961, the family moved into a house on Jefferson Avenue, a main thoroughfare.
John Servis's love for horses and horse racing came early. His mother, Delores "Dee" Servis, 72, can recall bringing her children to the races on Friday nights, where they would sit behind the 4 1/2-furlong chute atop a grassy hillside that provided a good view and plenty of room for kids to frolic.
"It's where all the families would go," she said. "It was a good family atmosphere. Those were good times."
John is the third of the family's four children. Laurie, 50, the oldest, is married to Florida-based trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.; Jason, 47, is a trainer in New York; and Jodie, 40, the youngest, lives with her husband and family in Keller, Texas, between Dallas and Forth Worth.
Because he grew up around the racetrack, it did not take much for John Servis to become enamored with the sport, even though his father warned him about the potential pitfalls and heartache that always seem to be lurking close by.
"But once he committed himself to racing, I supported him wholeheartedly," said Joe Servis, 72, who now lives with his wife in Tuscawilla Hills, a small, nearby suburb.
Joe Servis was a jockey who rode primarily at Charles Town from 1949 to 1961, after which he worked for the Jockeys' Guild for 12 years. He became a steward at Charles Town, eventually chief steward and the most powerful political figure on the racetrack. He retired in 1997 but still occasionally works as a substitute steward in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Invariably, Joe Servis is described by those who have known him as fair but stern, someone who refused to compromise his principles. This rigid sort of discipline clearly rubbed off on his children.
One of John Servis's best boyhood friends was Billy Berry, who has trained off and on since 1979 and now has a nine-horse stable at Charles Town. Together, the boys attended school, played Little League baseball, went to Boy Scout camp, and worked at the racetrack. "My mom would watch John a lot when we were kids," said Berry, whose late father, William "Wash" Berry, was a trainer who often employed Joe Servis as a jockey.
Berry said Servis was happy, responsible, and conscientious - someone who loved horses and eventually became intensely focused on becoming a successful trainer. "He had a certain personality that showed what a class act he was," said Berry. "It was something about their upbringing. It's like John has never changed. He's a great person."
With a laugh, Berry added: "He had all the girls after him, too."
Gets a leg up from local horsemen
Like many racetrack kids, Servis started working at local farms and on the backstretch well before the legal age of 16. In his early teens, he worked for O'Sullivan Farms, the oldest commercial Thoroughbred breeding operation in West Virginia. The trainers who showed him the ropes included Harold Utz, Frank Gall, and, most notably, Eugene Smith.
By 1982, Servis had begun working at Philadelphia Park as an assistant to Mark Reid. Servis went out on his own a few years later and settled in Philadelphia with his wife, Sherry. The couple now has two sons - Blane, 16, and John Tyler, 13.
Much has been made about Servis's connection with Philadelphia and how the city has adopted Smarty Jones in the colt's run for a Triple Crown, how its people are starved for a sports championship of any kind, how they will travel to New York to help pack Belmont Park to the rafters on Saturday. Servis is one of the Philly faithful, proudly so, and would love nothing more than to deliver the Crown.
All the same, he will never forget his Charles Town roots.
"I think my early years at Charles Town working with Gene Smith helped me a lot on how to keep horses sound, how to keep them happy," Servis said. "We had a lot of horses there that had a lot of problems, and you had to sit under them for a long time and work their legs and get their blood circulating.
"Those days at Charles Town made me a very good horseman. When I worked for Mark Reid, he polished me in all the other areas. I remember when I came to work for him, he said, 'You're an excellent horseman - now I'm going to teach you the rest of the business.' And he did. I learned a lot about the condition book from being an agent, but he taught me how to deal with people, how to handle people, how to be aggressive with where to run your horses and finding the right spot, and how to handle the help."
Slots turn around track's fortunes
As it had been for much of its history, Charles Town was teetering on the verge of financial ruin when John Servis got out of town for good. Purses were low. Morale was lower.
"They were nailing the doors shut when John got out of here," said Billy Berry. "We all had to get out. We were all running for a little bit of nothing."
Nonetheless, Joe Servis said the reason he did not discourage his sons from leaving town had little to do with the quality of racing at Charles Town.
"I wanted all my children to go out and see the world," he said. "You can always come back. All I told them was that if you're around the right kind of people, good things can happen to you. It doesn't really matter where it is."
The smashing success of Smarty Jones and John Servis seems to serve as a metaphor for how Charles Town, once the laughingstock of Eastern racing, has risen far above its modest roots. Owned since January 1997 by Penn National Gaming Co., the track now offers some of the biggest purses in the region.
Clearly, the Eastern racing pyramid that once had Charles Town buried on the bottom has become scrambled in recent years by the arrival of slots in West Virginia and Delaware (and their failure to arrive in Maryland and Pennsylvania).
"It's like going to Disney World every day," said Dickie Moore, who has worked at Charles Town for 40 years and is the track's general manager of racing. "This is like a palace. Walking in and knowing what it was like in the late 80's and early 90's, when there was doom and gloom all around, it's a huge turnaround."
Moore said Smarty-mania has swept through the track. "Now, when you walk through the doors of this place, not only on the racing side, but over on the slots side, all you hear is 'Smarty Jones,' " Moore said. "People are looking to buy all the Smarty Jones paraphernalia. He's really given all the old-timers something to talk about. They all knew the Servis family."
Debbie Smallwood McClure, who was a year behind Servis at Jefferson High and who has worked at the track off and on for more than 25 years, said: "I cried when he won the Derby. I cried when he won the next one, too. A lot of people cried."
More than anyone else in Charles Town, Joe Servis is proud of what his son has accomplished, especially the unorthodox decision to use the Oaklawn Park route - seldom taken by Eastern trainers - to get Smarty Jones to the Kentucky Derby.
"Winning the Derby was nice," Joe Servis said. "But what I love more than anything is to see the job he did, doing it his own way to get him to the Derby. It was his plan all the way. He showed everyone what a great horseman he has become."
As an indelible piece of American history, and in terms of national impact, the saga of Harpers Ferry is easily the biggest story to unfold in Charles Town. On Oct. 25, 1859, the trial of John Brown began in Charles Town, which then was still part of Virginia. Thirty-eight days later, he was hanged for treason.
The next biggest story involving Charles Town may be unfolding right now: John Servis, local boy done good, is at the doorstep of Triple Crown history with a superstar horse named Smarty Jones. The town cannot stop talking about it.
As the eyes of the sporting world turn to New York, thousands of rabid Smarty fans will gather in one of the smaller corners of America. They will be watching from Charles Town, the birthplace of the man who will put a racing saddle on quite possibly the next great American sports hero. Their history is about to get richer.
- additional reporting by David Grening