By Aaron Dodson
The Baltimore Sun
5:47 PM EDT, May 15, 2014
Mounted next to Stall 40 in the Preakness Stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course is a three-foot plaque emblazoned by black-eyed susan flowers.
Each year, Stall 40 houses the Kentucky Derby winning thoroughbred, and the adjacent wooden sign commemorates the horses that ended their stay at Pimlico with a Preakness victory.
If trainers were immortalized on the plague, John Servis would find his name near the bottom, next to one of the latest celebrated horses.
Ten years ago, Servis trained Smarty Jones to wins in the 2004 Derby and Preakness before just falling short of claiming the Triple Crown with a second-place finish at the Belmont Stakes.
On Friday, the 55-year-old trainer will return to Pimlico, looking to emerge victorious out of a race he won before garnering fame during Smarty Jones' chase for the Triple Crown.
After winning the race for the first time 14 years ago, Servis will lead Joint Return into the 90th Black-Eyed Susan Stakes — the $500,000 1 1/18-mile Grade II prelude to the Preakness.
"I go to Pimlico quite often so it's not going to be much different, but it's an opportunity for me to win the Black-Eyed Susan again," Servis said. So that'll be exciting."
In 2000, Servis trained Jostle, who claimed the then-$250,000 Black-Eyed Susan. This year, he will make the trip with Joint Return, a 15-1 choice, who will face a competitive field of 3-year-old fillies headlined by the 4-1 favorite Euphrosyne.
Todd Pletcher's Sloane Square (5-1) and Stopchargingmaria (7-2) are also considered contenders. Pletcher claimed his first Black-Eyed Susan in 2005 with Spun Sugar before winning with Panty Raid in 2007 and In Lingerie in 2012.
"It's a very good group of fillies so I'm anxious to see how [Joint Return] performs with them," Servis said. "It might be the best group of fillies she's run against to date."
Joint Return has won three of her four starts this year, the exception being a fifth-place finish in the Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 29. While Servis couldn't pinpoint a specific reason for the horse's struggles in that race, he's confident that strong training since will allow her to bounce back in the Black-Eyed Susan, even despite the forecasted rain showers that could result in rough conditions.
"She just never showed up," Servis said of the Gulfstream performance. "But she seems to get better with every race. Right now, we're just taking it one step at a time and preparing her for the race on Friday, and she's come in to it very well."
Joint Return drew the No. 1 post for the race. And while many trainers and jockeys fear that starting position closest to the rail, Servis' jockey Kendrick Carmouche is ever comfortable.
"Work its way home," Carmouche said of how he'll take advantage of the first gate.
Servis commended the job Carmouche has done in five starts aboard the filly. Carmouche, who said he sees Servis as a second father, is confident he can make the trainer's return to Pimlico that much sweeter with a victory.
"I think it would mean a lot to John, just because it's been a while," Carmouche said. "So it would be good to see him back in that position that he's been working hard to get to."
There's no doubt Servis will be nostalgic upon arriving to the track Friday morning. Ask him about his memories from the 2004 Preakness and one simple memory pops in his mind.
"The stretch run was pretty exciting with [jockey Stewart Elliott] sitting down," Servis said. "He just leveled off and drew away from the field."
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