john servis wins no. 2,000

By Dick Jerardi

It was a few minutes after Smarty Jones had just won the Preakness by the biggest margin in the race’s history when Sherry Servis told me her husband John had considered getting out of the game in the late 1990s. Fast forward to Monday, Aug. 21, 2023 at Parx Racing. There was Sherry standing with John, family and friends in the winner’s circle at Parx after John sent out his 2,000th winner in a career that thankfully is still going strong a quarter century after he considered ending it.

Think about what might have happened if Servis had made another decision. There may have been no Act 71 (the slots bill) in 2004. Without that bill, the benefits to so many on the Parx backstretch almost certainly would not exist. The purses would not be remotely in the same place they are today. The Pennsylvania breeding program, one of the country’s best, would be a shell of itself. Who knows what racing in the Commonwealth would look like today without Act 71 being signed into law in the Parx winner’s circle by then Gov. Ed Rendell.

John Servis has been at Parx since 1980, when it was called Keystone, first as a top assistant to trainer Mark Reid and since 1984, as a trainer himself. So, 40 years and 11,348 starts. Still, after the first 15 years, Servis was really wondering if it was worth all the sacrifice.

Then, Jostle happened. The brilliant filly, owned by Rick Porter, won six graded stakes in 1999 and 2000, including the Grade I CCA Oaks and Grade I Alabama.

“Before Jostle, we were just kind of treading water to be honest with you, making ends meet and getting by,” Servis said. “Then, Jostle jumped up, turned out to be runner-up for 3-year-old filly champion and opened a lot of doors.”

When Roy and Pat Chapman’s regular trainer Bob Camac was murdered by his stepson, they needed a trainer for what they were certain would be their final few horses. Reid, who had once trained for the Chapmans, recommended his old assistant John Servis. And that is how Smarty Jones made his way to the Servis barn at what was then called Philadelphia Park in 2003.

All Smarty did was win his way to the 2004 Kentucky Derby with a perfect record. All Servis did in the glare of the Triple Crown spotlight was perform with just as much grace and class as his horse of a lifetime. Even when Smarty was denied his much deserved Triple Crown, Servis made his way to the winner’s circle to congratulate Birdstone’s trainer Nick Zito before answering every question anybody wanted to ask.

Without Smarty Jones’ run to glory that spring, Gov. Rendell thinks Act 71 may never have become law. They had been trying for years to get the bill passed, but it wasn’t until Smarty brought so much attention to the sport and what it needed to survive and then thrive that the necessary votes were there.

And, if John Servis wasn’t training Smarty Jones, who knows if the colt becomes what he became. And, without Smarty, so much of what we now take for granted very likely would not have happened at all.

Servis is 49th all-time on the earnings list with almost $70 million. He is the only trainer to win the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks (Cathryn Sophia, 2016) in his first try. He has won 33 graded stakes, including eight Grade I. He has trained two divisional champions – Smarty Jones 3-year-old champion in 2004, Jaywalk 2-year-old filly champion in 2018 after she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Win No. 2,000 came in the first race of the first day back after Parx’s 26-day-long summer break. Dewey Doit, a 2-year-old filly, won in her debut.

“When we didn’t get it done before we shut down, I kind of had a feeling it might be a while before it happens,” Servis said. “It’s good to have it done here. This is home. This is where we race most of our horses. I’m tickled to death it happened here.”

With everything he has accomplished in his career, what does 2,000 mean?

“It’s a feather in my cap, but more importantly, it says something about my clientele and my employees,” Servis said. “Most of the guys that work for me have been with me for a long, long time. What they put into the game, that’s what we have gotten back. The owners who have given me the chance to run horses where they can be competitive makes it (possible) to get to 2,000.”

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