Jason Servis stood along the outside rail of the Oklahoma track Thursday morning as Alabama hopeful Actress enjoyed her first morning at the Spa. Arriving earlier that day, the gray daughter of Tapit jogged the wrong way, turned around and loped easily past Servis, his wife Natalie and a few gawkers on a crisp and clear morning.
“She hits 16s like nothing, like nothing,” Servis said, referring to the seconds it takes for her to cover a furlong. “Every once in a while I’ll put my watch on her and she just hits 16s. I don’t usually get these horses.”
Servis, 60, usually gets projects, claimers, patch-up jobs. Actress is no patch-up job. Owned and bred by Mary and Gary West, the daughter of leading sire Tapit made her debut in March, finishing second to future stakes winner Unchained Melody. Servis skipped the maiden category, sending her out to finish second in the Game Face at Gulfstream and to win the Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico. Rallying from 19 lengths back that day, Actress became Servis’ second Grade 2 stakes winner. Two months later, she finished third in the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks.
Asked if it was different to train a horse like Actress, Servis dismissed the thought.
“There’s a little extra pressure the next couple of days, but that’s all,” he said.
Born and raised in Charles Town, W. Va., Jason Servis used to be the lesser known of the two Servis brothers. Younger brother, John, trained Smarty Jones to nearly win the Triple Crown. While his brother became a headliner in 2004, Jason has plied his trade consistently since he designed his first dark blue and white saddle towel in 2001.
Servis won 14 races in 2002, he won 97 last year, gradually becoming a force in New York. At Saratoga this summer, Servis has won eight races from 19 starts, including a stakes win with Picco Uno Thursday and a shot to win his first Grade 1 in today’s Alabama.
Asked if he dreamed about Saratoga when he was galloping horses at Charles Town, Servis seemed surprised by the question. “I guess,” he said.
That’s about all the emotion you’re going to get from Servis, a likeable and low-key professional horse trainer who has come up the hard way, learning the game from his father, Joe, who rode races before serving as a steward at Charles Town for 40 years.
“I can remember riding at this hunt meet in Ruby, Va., it was on a hill, there was a half-mile track, I went over there for a couple of trainers from Charles Town, maidens who hadn’t run yet, no pari-mutuel wagering,” Servis said. “My brother, he’s the groom and I am the jockey. When John had Smarty Jones, some people asked me if I had any pictures. Oh, I have pictures.”
John Servis wanted to be a trainer. Jason Servis wanted to be a jockey.
“I wanted to ride bad, I got the itch, my father made me graduate high school and I got big,” Servis said. “I knew everybody at Charles Town, but I had to leave because my dad was a steward, I went to Mountaineer, it was Waterford then, I rode about a year, I didn’t do much good, won some races. I came to Monmouth and I was going to go to New York for the winter (Steve) Cauthen broke in, but I was fighting it, gave it up and went in the room.”
The jocks’ room can serve as a landing pad or a launching pad for ex-jockeys, ambitious exercise riders and racetrack refugees. Servis, who was still galloping horses in the morning, wasn’t sure which it was.
“The room was good to me,” Servis said. “I didn’t have any complaints.”
Like most racing stories, Servis’ changed at the convergence of necessity and opportunity, forced by Closing Day at one track and Opening Day at another. Peter Fortay, who had taken Servis under his wing, got sick and died. The Meadowlands fall meet was over. Fortay’s main client, Dennis Drazin, asked Servis if he would take his horses.
“I did everything in the morning and he would go in the afternoon, it was great and then he got sick and died on me,” Servis said. “Dennis asked me if I wanted to go to New York with a couple of horses. So I went up there.”
After his first horse ran, Jimmy Croll called.
“I see you run a horse, are you training?” the Hall of Fame trainer of Holy Bull and other stars asked.
“Yes sir,” Servis answered.
“I’m sending you a horse from Gulfstream,” Croll said.
“OK, Mr. Croll.”
Servis ran the filly back in seven weeks, she won, paid $90, Croll and his cronies bet and Servis was on his way. Sixteen years later, Servis is crushing it in Saratoga.
“I practiced for 25 years, I really did, I was in the room, galloping horses, running a shed,” Servis said. “I’ve seen guys go by the wayside, I know any day it can turn the other way, I’m humble every day.”
With or without a Grade 1 stakes score today, that’s not changing.