LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jason Servis is bringing more than an undefeated Grade 1 winner to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. He’s bringing the scrutiny that goes with a high rate of success and an unconventional training method.
Servis trains Maximum Security, who began his career last Dec. 20 winning a maiden $16,000 claiming race at Gulfstream Park and 100 days later became a Grade 1 winner, taking the $1 million Florida Derby in authoritative fashion.
Maximum Security’s four victories – which came by a combined 38 lengths – were part of a Gulfstream Park winter meet in which Servis won races at a 45 percent clip (35 for 77). Last summer, he won at 40 percent or higher at both Belmont Park and Monmouth Park.
Servis, 62, enjoys success despite employing an unconventional training style. Rather than work his horses fast every week or 10 days, Servis prefers slower, steady gallops. Speed is only sought at the tail end of a move on days when Servis is trying to assimilate a workout. The workouts for Maximum Security leading to the Derby will include half-mile times of 54.80 seconds and 53.80.
“The young horses, I get it that they got to go to the gate, they got to breeze, they got to get dirt in their face,” he said. “But once they run I just think it’s really a lot easier on the horse.”
Servis said it’s something he first started doing decades ago when he worked for another trainer who was having health problems.
“I was on my own and I just started getting open gallops in them,” Servis said. “I started getting into this groove and it was really working good.”
Servis believes it’s kinder to the horses. In New York, Servis has not had a racing-related fatality due to a musculoskeletal injury since 2012. Over the last seven years, he’s had three training-related fatalities, none in the last four years.
Servis didn’t start training horses until he was 44 years old. A son of a jockey and the brother of Kentucky Derby-winning trainer John Servis, Jason worked as an exercise rider in the mornings and a jockey’s valet in the afternoon.
Servis said he learned by observing.
“It was like going to school,” he said.
For most of his career, Servis was annually winning at a rate of 20 to 26 percent. From 2005-16, he won 35 stakes, four of which were graded.
Over the years, he’s picked up owners including Michael Dubb and Gary and Mary West. Servis’s numbers took off. In 2017, Servis went 112 for 391 (29 percent) and last year he won 143 races from 441 starters (32 percent), including 27 stakes.
“It wasn’t like I was an 8 percent trainer and I went to 35,” Servis said. “I’m steady Eddie. The last 2 1/2 years I picked up Gary and Mary West and Michael Dubb, in my opinion two of the biggest owners in the country, aggressive as you can get, and that pushed me over the top. That’s the way it is. They can say anything they want.”
Servis said he doesn’t pay attention to those who may suggest he cheats, though his children keep him apprised of social media pundits.
“I don’t read it,” Servis said.
According to the Thoroughbred rulings website, Servis has a handful of fines for medication violations, but none were serious enough where he was suspended.
Servis relies on a loyal group of employees that includes Florida/New Jersey assistants Matt Hartman and Jose Hernandez. In New York, Servis’s stable is run by longtime assistant Henry Argueta. Servis said if Argueta ever left him, he might pull out of New York.
“I wouldn’t go through all that aggravation,” he said. “I’m going to do all this, and then fly up there every weekend? I don’t think so.”
Servis said he’s turned down opportunities to train for owners who could put high-dollar horses in his barn.
“I’ve got some mom and pop owners that I’ve had for years,” Servis said. “There’s people that [want to] be in the barn because you’re winning and those are people that I purposely steered away from. I’ve gotten several calls about it and I very politely say ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’”
Servis believes too much is being made about the fact Maximum Security debuted in a low-level claiming race. He said the horse hadn’t shown much early in his training and had a relatively modest pedigree, though his dam is a half-sister to the multiple Grade 1 winner Flat Out.
“It’s not like I claimed the horse and waved a magic wand on him and won a stake,” Servis said. “I ran a good horse for $16,000, that’s all. I took a shot. I really didn’t think he’d get claimed.”
Ben Glass, the racing manager for the Wests, said he tried to sell Maximum Security for $15,000 as a yearling “and couldn’t get him sold,” he said.
In addition to Servis, the Wests employ Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in Southern California and Joe Sharp in Kentucky. Baffert, who asks a lot of his horses in the morning, and Servis couldn’t be more opposite in their training styles.
“Bob and Jason are high-percentage trainers who know what they’re doing,” Glass said. “We stand back and let them do their thing.”
Over the last 15 Derbies, there have been 12 undefeated horses to run in the race. Five of them won, including Justify last year. Magnum Moon was the other undefeated horse to run in the Derby last year. He finished 19th.
Maximum Security is one of the few horses with early speed and figures to be prominent early on Saturday. The 20 horses in this field have combined to register four triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures. Maximum Security has two of them.
“He’s no throw-out,” Servis said.
Servis made it to the Derby last year with Firenze Fire, who was probably not cut out for the 1 1/4-miles and finished 11th, but helped fulfill a dream for owner Ron Lombardi, a longtime client of Servis.
Servis takes pride in the fact he was able to get to the Derby for a second consecutive year.
“I’m not a big fanfare guy, but do I want to win the Derby?” Servis said. “Hell yeah, I want to win the Derby.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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