It's about time Servis got nervous

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

John Servis finally admitted that he's starting to get nervous. It's about time.

Some 48 hours before saddling Smarty Jones for a shot at the Triple Crown, a $5 million bonus and racing immortality, the easygoing trainer stood on the grounds at Belmont Park and acknowledged his gut was starting to churn.

''The fact that we have a chance to make history is starting to set in,'' Servis said.

Just wait.

Because one person who knows more than a little something about what Servis is going through says the real fun is just beginning.

''By the time you make the walk over from the barn Saturday, your voice is shot, your head is aching, and there's a thousand things you wonder if you should have done differently. And if you wind up losing,'' Bob Baffert said, chuckling into a cell phone from Santa Anita Park in California, ''those are the fond memories.''

Three times since 1997, Baffert rolled into New York with the first two gems of the Triple Crown already in hand and a chance to seal the toughest deal in sports. Each time, he went home empty-handed.

''So maybe the only advice I'd give him is take it all in. When you hit the track, you look up at the crowd and it starts to sink in what's on the line. When you load into the gate, it brings back up a lot of stuff in your own life, especially the hard times ... all those times you thought you'd never see a horse like this.''

In Baffert's case, he got to savor those emotions for only the roughly two-and-half minutes it takes a pack of thoroughbreds to cover the 1 1/2 miles around Belmont. Each time it was followed by a walk from the grandstand to the paddock that totaled only a few hundred yards, but seemed like the longest trek in sports.

Whether Servis makes that same walk being hailed as a genius or a dunce, a champion or a chump, the pluckiest trainer in recent memory or maybe just the unluckiest, depends on too many things beyond his control.

Smarty Jones will need luck just to break well from the gate and get a clean trip around Belmont's grueling oval. Jockey Stewart Elliott will have to prove one more time he has as much patience and poise as he demonstrated while piloting the undersized chestnut colt to impressive wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The other eight horses and riders on every side of him will have to resist the temptation to stop him by doing something rash or stupid.

And the checklist doesn't end there. It's just beginning.

''The first time I went with Silver Charm, I had a friend of mine research how Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed got ready for the Belmont, what training paths they took,'' Baffert said. ''I looked at how much running Secretariat did leading up to the race and it dawned on me that if I did that with my horse, I wouldn't have anything left.

''Horses like those are cut from different cloth and maybe the lesson is just stay out of their way. Smarty looks like that, he just keeps getting better and better. All you can do is keep him happy and healthy and pray he stays out of trouble around the track.''

So far, Servis has proved equal to every challenge that's come his way. He rehabbed Smarty Jones after a starting-gate accident nearly killed the colt a year ago, then chose the less-traveled path through the Arkansas prep races to the Kentucky Derby. It turned out to be a stroke of genius. Not only did Smarty Jones pick up a $5 million bonus, he learned how to win at his own comfortable pace and hasn't stopped since.

On the other hand, the temptation Servis faces to change something anything will never be greater. There are more details to look after than ever before, more pressure, more interviews, more family and friends to keep track of, more of just about everything.

That goes for disappointments, too.

Baffert lost his first shot at the Triple when Silver Charm came up four strides short. The following year, with Real Quiet, he lost by a nose. He couldn't laugh about either, though, until Mike Pegram, Silver Charm's owner, sidled up to Bob Lewis, Real Quiet's owner, and tried to console him.

''Mike said, 'Look at it this way, Bob. My dad always told me that something lucky happens to you just before you die, and nothing very lucky happened for you today.'''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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