Cup of Coffee: Family First

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John Servis brought his two kids, Blane and Tyler, to Delaware Park for a day’s work. It was 2003, maybe 2004. Blane was 15, 16. Tyler, three years younger. They got out of the car and walked toward the barn and saw a dozen stall screens leaning on the outside posts of the barn.

“What are they doing with all that?” Blane asked his dad.

“They’re painting them,” Servis told his son.

It looked like a lot of work to Blane.

Tyler scampered to the drainage ditch between the barns to look for frogs. Blane looked for something to do, other than painting those screens.

“Blane, you can walk this horse,” Servis said. “He just came in, he seems good.”

Blane took the leather shank, tentatively, and made two left turns. As the duo came past the tack room the next time, horse was walking kid.

“Blane, you’ve got to back up,” Servis said. “You can’t get too close to that horse in front of you.”

“OK, Dad. OK.”

Two left turns and it got worse, the horses looked like jackknifed train cars down the dirt shed row.

“Blane, you’ve got to snatch him to get him back,” Servis said, louder, sterner. “You’ve got to take control.”

Blane pulled on the shank, like pulling on a post, and the horse kept marching.

“Look, give me the horse,” Servis said, taking the shank in both hands and nudging Blane to the barn wall.

“Look, Blane, when you snatch, you’ve got to let up a little bit so you have a little slack and then snatch on it.”

Blane looked quizzically at his dad.

“Look like this,” Servis said, snapping the shank with one quick jolt.

Like an ignition switch, the horse reared up, hollered like a stallion, bared his teeth and came at Servis. He snatched again, the horse went up again, higher and wilder, legs slapping at Servis. The more Servis snatched, the higher the horse went up in the air and the stronger he came down.

Servis stopped snatching and the horse eventually settled down.

Blane looked at his dad.

“Dad, I’ll paint every screen in the barn, don’t make me walk that horse.”

And so another lesson was taught.

Servis must have taught the lessons well. Blane Servis is training horses, about a dozen barns away from his dad, at Parx. He trained one winner in 2013, nine in 2014 and has five so far this year. He needs 1,439 more to catch his dad. Blane wanted to play football, looked at colleges, was offered a preferred walk-on status at the University of Arkansas, then decided he wanted to train horses.

Tyler has always wanted to be a trainer. When he was 14, he spent a summer working for Taylor Made in Kentucky, worked the Saratoga sales for Three Chimneys and now  works as assistant trainer for his dad. They brought four horses to Saratoga for the first time this summer.

Proud of his sons for following in his footsteps and fearful for the same reason, Servis can’t do anything about it anyway.

On a brisk, breezy morning at Saratoga, Servis stood outside his barn watching stakes winner Joint Venture graze when his wife, Sherry, and Tyler returned from the harness track.

Tyler is built like a linebacker, stretching over six feet high.

“He was the one hanging around my neck when Smarty won the Derby. He’s always loved the horses, he’s a big help to me,” Servis said. “Blane is doing well, I have to give him credit. I go to the sale and these owners will tell me, ‘Hey, I was talking to your son, he called me.’ Spendthrift sent him some horses. He calls me every morning, about 6 o’clock, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘Standing by the rail, watching horses gallop.’ Just chit chat, it’s good.”

Servis made sure it would be good.

Based in the Mid-Atlantic area throughout his career, Servis trained Jostle to win the Alabama in 2000 and of course Smarty Jones to win two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004. Servis could have branched out, ventured to New York years ago. He actually opened a barn at Belmont Park, commuting from Pennsylvania every morning. That didn’t last long.

“I didn’t want to live in New York. I’m not a city guy, I was born in West Virginia,” Servis said. “I think I missed out of a lot, the timing was probably right, after Jostle, but the kids were in school, we liked where they were, some things are more important. We’re very fortunate, this is a great career, but for me, family is at the top. The horses are great, but they’re never in front of my family.”

Well, except for when he was snatching that horse at Delaware Park.