“I have everything from maiden New Jersey-breds to turf horses, but am a little light on stakes horses right now,” said Servis, who bases his operation at Monmouth Park while moving divisions among Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, Gulfstream Park, and Palm Meadows Training Center as the racing calendar turns.
“My horses are running good at tracks all over,” said Servis, 55, who has been conditioning horses for the past decade. “This is just turning into a real good year. To stay steady, you need to see the little things and have good horsemanship. You have to have a sense about this game.”
Horse sense is second nature to Servis. As the son of former West Virginia State Steward Joe Servis, who held the position for 35 years and then headed the Jockeys’ Guild for another 15 years, he has spent his entire life on the racetrack. His brother, John Servis, trained 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Smarty Jones, his sister, Laurie, is married to Monmouth and South Florida-based trainer Eddie Plesa. Jr. and his other sister, Jodie, is a mutuel clerk at Hollywood Casino and Charlestown Races.
Moreover, his wife, Natalie, works with him every day in the barn and his son, Garrett, gets on some of his horses in the mornings and works as a back-up valet in the Monmouth jockeys’ room in the afternoons.
“I was born to do this. It is in my blood,” said the 55-year-old Servis. “There are pictures of me riding races when I was 15 and John, who was 13 at the time, was running the horse. That was at the old Shenandoah Downs. At 15, I was also riding in hunt races at the old Emerald Downs in Ruby, Virginia. It wasn’t a recognized track. There was a trailer for the jockeys’ room and there was no wagering.”
Servis’ father insisted that he graduate from high school before riding professionally, but once he had his diploma in hand, he became a jockey at age 18. He took his tack to the old Waterford Park in West Virginia, Thistledown in Ohio and Monmouth among others, but as he matured weight became a detriment. So he went to work for Peter Fortay as an exercise rider and assistant trainer in the mornings and spent his afternoons in the jockeys’ room at Monmouth.
“I quit riding in 1975 and worked in the jocks’ room for some 20 years,” said Servis. “Then Mr. (Dennis) Drazin asked me if I wanted to take some horses for him and I took out my trainer’s license. I won with some horses for him in New York and then (the late) Jimmy Croll sent me one, and I won with that horse, too. From there, it just snowballed and I started picking up more clients and winning more races. When I decided to train, it was an easy transition for me.”
Servis still trains for Drazin, the advisor to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Darby Development LLC, and his main client is Ron Lombardi of Mr. Amore Stables. Desiray Fitzpatrick is his top assistant at Monmouth and Henry Arguta oversees the shedrow in New York. And in the mornings, he can still be found in the irons as his horses work over the Monmouth strip.
“I get on more horses when in Florida,” he said. “Right now, I have a full barn here and when you’ve got that many, you’ve got to move around more and take care of more details.”
The Servis system is working well. To date, his horses are winning at a 26% clip at all tracks and at Monmouth, he won with 11 of his first 47 starters for a 23% rate to rank in the top 10 of the meet’s leaders.
“Things are going really well,” said Servis, who won his first graded stakes race when American Border took the 2008 Violet Stakes at The Meadowlands. “I’m excited to think that they’re going to get even better.”