This is one time to put the cart before the horse. Or at least the man in the cart—Herve Filion. At 30, he has become the flamboyant new star of harness racing, the kind of driver that makes things happen and that things happen to. This was all too plain last week when Filion brought the surprise horse of the year, Marlu Pride, to Yonkers Raceway for the Futurity, the first race of trotting's Triple Crown, and then found himself standing in the backstretch petting his horse's nose as the $100,000 race whirled on behind him—all because an absurdly inexpensive piece of equipment had broken. Even when stalled on the track Filion and his black colt were the big story.
As a 2-year-old Marlu Pride was erratic and bad-tempered, but in the past four months, with Filion training and driving him, the colt has looked like the best 3-year-old trotter around. "He is, there is no question about it," says French-Canadian Filion. Maybe so. Maybe not. But one thing is indisputable about Marlu Pride: his ungodly bad luck. First his elderly owner—August J. Portanova, a retired postmaster from Purchase, N.Y.—neglected to nominate him for trotting's prestige event, The Hambletonian. And then there was the unfortunate break last Friday night. The field of eight was lined up ready to go, and Filion, as usual, was feeling quite confident. "Marlu was good, real good," he said later, "but the colt was really taking an awful hold on the bit." So strong a hold, in fact, that just as the starting gate pulled away and the green "go" lights flashed, the rubber bit snapped in Marlu's mouth and he immediately went skipping off stride, to the chagrin of the raceway bettors, who had made him the 2-to-5 favorite.
Filion sawed furiously on the reins, trying to stop the galloping colt, and finally he managed to pull him to a halt on the backstretch. By the time Filion returned with his horse to the paddock the race was over. The surprise winner was Victory Star, driven by Vernon Dancer, and a nose behind him was Billy Haughton's Gil Hanover. Quite probably the bit—a cheap D-ring model that usually costs about $15—had cost Marlu Pride the winner's share of $64,000.
Not everyone, of course, was heartbroken by the colt's misfortune. Marlu won six races in a row from his top contemporaries during one stretch of the summer, and the more he won the more The Hambletonian began to shape up as a consolation race—a fact that many horsemen were having a hard time trying to digest. Now, however, The Hambo, on Sept. 2, can boast that it will have all the top finishers from the Yonkers Futurity, along with a few highly regarded prospects who skipped the Yonkers race—among them Johnny Simpson's Timothy T. and Frank Ervin's tandem of Old Glory and Speedy Spin.
Moreover, in the carefully structured society of harness racing there are horsemen not at all unhappy to see Filion receive a comeuppance. Although he is undoubtedly the brightest new talent in the sport, Filion also is the most controversial and perhaps—in the envious corners of some of his competitors' souls—the most resented. He is, it is said, too young, too cocky, too clever, too frank—and, mainly, too good. Already this year, aside from his success with Marlu Pride, Filion has grabbed headlines by 1) winning the first world driving championship, 2) filing a much-publicized legal action against Roosevelt Raceway and the New York State Harness Racing Commission and 3) becoming the first man ever to drive five winners in sub-two-minute miles on the same card. This feat is like hitting five home runs in one ball game and, as Filion puts it with accuracy, if not modesty, "I don't think we will ever see that done again in this century," and then he adds, "unless I drive six."
Filion comes from a large horse racing family in Angers, Quebec. His father runs a modest farm, and the Filion children—all 10 of them—grew up grooming and working with horses. "Instead of playing hockey with the ether kids I always went straight home to the horses," Filion says. The eight boys followed their father into the horse business and, in Herve's case, that meant quitting school after the fifth grade.
For 10 years he groomed, trained and drove horses for his father, and he began building a reputation—or perhaps attaining notoriety is a better way to put it. Between 1957 and 1964 he was suspended nine times in the U.S. and Canada for an imposing catalog of iniquities. In early July of 1965, after Herve had left his father's stable to go into business for himself, his career reached a crisis. He was suspended at Liberty Bell in Philadelphia for loafing after getting to the front in a race, and a few days later the U.S. Trotting Association recalled his license. But Filion persuaded Milt Taylor, a Pennsylvania state steward, to give him one final chance, and five days later his license was returned. Taylor says now, "I guess if I ever did anything great for the sport all these years it was to straighten up Herve."
Given his reprieve, Herve's red-white-and-blue Captain America silks, his round baby face and his Chaplinesque walk soon became a familiar sight in winner's circles all around the U.S. and Canada. His horses earned $610,233 in 1967, and then, in 1968, he wedged his way into harness racing's upper strata, winning $964,531 in purses to rank fifth in the country. That year Filion won 407 races—an all-time record and almost 150 more than his nearest competitor. In 1969 Filion again led the country's drivers in wins, with 394, and his horses took home nearly $1.2 million. He is on the way to another million-dollar season and is far ahead of his record 1968 pace for winners.
Since Filion owns a part of more than half of the 72 horses he trains, his personal earnings totaled about a quarter of a million dollars last year, which made him one of the highest earners in any sport. But, for all his sudden affluence, he still lives in a house trailer and drives a clanking Olds. "I thought about buying a Cadillac, but I didn't want to flash," he says. Not that Filion has ever had any qualms about flashing with his clothes—or his horses.
After he won the world driving championship last April (by beating leading drivers from the U.S., West Germany, Italy, Australia, Austria and New Zealand in a series of match races), some of Filion's detractors consoled themselves by saying, well, it was just a publicity stunt anyway, and wasn't Filion lucky to draw the best horses?
"Sure, it didn't really prove who's the best," says Filion, "but let's put it this way. I may not be the best in the world, but I'm as good as the next guy—and I don't care who he is."
Not even his bitterest rival can begrudge Filion the praise he has earned in the handling of Marlu Pride. As a 2-year-old the colt won only three of 14 starts. And he was not impressing anyone this spring until Owner Portanova turned him over to Filion. "I saw that Herve was the top driver in the country, and I wanted the best, not some mediocre guy," says Portanova. One of Filion's brothers drove Marlu in his first start in May, and the colt was so upset by the raceway din that he broke stride twice. The next time out Filion plugged Marlu's ears with cotton and put a bright-red hood over the horse's head. The colt settled down and went about his business, winning by two lengths. Next came a 6½-length upset victory over the leading 3-year-olds in the Dexter Cup.
Now Marlu will drop out of the spotlight for a few weeks as attention centers on The Hambletonian. But the winner of that race had better beware. Postmaster Portanova did not forget to send in his entry for the $100,000 Colonial on Sept. 19 at Liberty Bell. And there, says Herve Filion, it will take a lot more than a $15 bit to keep him from proving Marlu Pride is the best 3-year-old trotter of 1970.