Herve Filion, a 31-year-old Quebecois who traveled south to seek his fortune in the U.S., is the world's winningest harness racing driver and a saucy little man. No one puts him down. Last year, for example, Filion represented Canada in the first world driving tournament, a competition among international reinsmen. Although many horsemen regarded the affair as a publicity stunt, Filion took great pride in winning the championship, so much so that Carmine Abbatiello, a rival driver, felt obliged to deflate him.
"Hey, hey," cried Abbatiello, one afternoon at Freehold Raceway in a loud, mocking voice. "Look who's here—Mr. Canada."
"To you, Abbatiello," said Filion, coolly, "it's Mr. World."
Filion's cheek and brashness annoy a good many of his rivals, but what might be called a mutuel admiration society forms between Herve and the betting public at the tracks where he appears. The odds on the horses he drives have a tendency to plummet. When several weeks ago he brought the bulk of his stable to New York to compete for the first time, he quickly convinced the tough, cynical Roosevelt Raceway crowds, winning five out of the nine events on one evening's program.
September 5, 1971
Before Filion became the country's and the world's leading harness driver, the most races any horseman had won in one year was 386. In 1968 Filion had 407 victories; in '69 he had 394 and last year he raised the total to 486. This season he is shooting for 500 wins, a figure that seems within his reach.
"Oh, yeah, I think so," Filion says breezily as he leafs through the battered brown diary in which he records every start, finish and penny earned. "I'm about a dozen wins ahead of this time last year, and I plan on driving in more races than ever. Give me a good horse and I can win anywhere, anytime."
Give him a few good horses and he's apt to go on a binge. Last summer at Brandywine Raceway he had five winners on one card, all of them timed in less than two minutes for the mile. That was unprecedented, and so were his five consecutive winners on a card this past May at Liberty Bell Park. Then Filion repeated the feat last month at Roosevelt under decidedly more dramatic circumstances.
On Aug. 9 he was involved in a three-sulky collision during a race and came out of it with torn ligaments in his shoulder and facial cuts that required seven stitches. Four days later Filion won one race at Freehold in New Jersey in the afternoon, then drove to Roosevelt, where he won five straight that night. The next day Filion took two more at Freehold and four more at Roosevelt—including the $50,000 American Trotting Championship. Said Filion of his 12 wins in two days: "I had to make up for lost time."
"He never stops," declares Norman Dauplaise, another French Canadian who drives in the New York area. "He's like a machine. Not too many people can keep up with him." Filion traveled 250,000 miles by plane and car last year to tracks in the U.S. and Canada. He appeared in an average six races a day, six days a week. This year he added Australia and New Zealand to his itinerary, and he talks of racing in France next winter. "I love the sport and the travel," says Filion. "I'm very thankful for what I've got. If it wasn't for harness racing, I'd probably be carrying a lunch pail and working as a laborer on construction projects like my friends back home."
The horses Filion drives earn more than $I million a year in purses, providing him with an income of around a quarter of a million dollars. "I don't have any trouble buying bread," says Filion. He has a white Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the most mod wardrobe in the sport and a library of country music tapes for his car (Johnny Cash is a favorite). He also is the proud possessor of a $400 toupee that he wears on special occasions.
"I don't like it," says his wife Barbara, a gum-popping, fast-talking young lady not far removed from the teeny-bopper ranks. "I wish he would get something real bushy with long sideburns and everything." Filion seems well satisfied with his more conservative model. In fact, he is considering wearing it later this fall to the ceremony where he will be decorated by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau with the Order of Canada, an honor bestowed on citizens for outstanding performance.
When he is his normal balding self, Filion bears a strong resemblance to Peter Boyle, the hard hat of the movie Joe. He has a short, stocky frame and a herky-jerky Chaplinesque strut. The charming, even amusing figure he cuts is misleading, however. A friend says, "Put Herve at a pool table or behind a horse and he is one of the smartest, toughest men in the world. That's all he's ever known."
Filion grew up on a farm near Angers, a village not far from Ottawa. His father, a sometime truck driver, was in harness racing, too, and earned a reputation as a mighty sharp man around a track. "I've heard some funny stories about the old man," says a Filion friend. "Like he was supposed to have painted a white horse black to get him into a certain race, and it would have worked, except it rained."
"The old man is sort of a hayseed city slicker," says another acquaintance. "He used to be ruled off Canadian tracks regularly. So were several of his sons. There are 10 children, eight of them boys. They grew up in very humble surroundings, sometimes three boys in a bed and two horses in a stall, that sort of thing. But they have always been extremely close." This year, to celebrate Papa Filion's 61st birthday and 37th wedding anniversary, the Filion children presented him with a Cadillac Fleetwood and gave their mother a diamond ring.
"You talk about work," Herve Filion says, "my father was a worker. And real generous to every one of us. We didn't have much, but he never left us broke. He's a real good man but, of course, that runs in the family. We're all nice guys.
"When I was a kid I used to run all the way home at lunchtime to work with the horses and then run back to school. I didn't play hockey like other kids. I went to the barns, nowhere else." Herve quit school after the fifth grade and at 13 began driving horses professionally.
"I saw him win a race in Ottawa when he was 14," says Mike Sherman, a Filion assistant. "His feet didn't reach the stirrups. But even then he could do things nobody else could do. I predicted that someday he would be world champion. Do you remember that, Herve?"
"Huh," says Filion, "I knew I'd be a champion when I was 11."
The brothers followed their father into harness racing, and the name Filion became well known in Canada—perhaps notorious is a better term. They were harsh competitors, and Herve was no exception. Between 1957 and 1964 he was suspended nine times in the U.S. and Canada for violating racing rules. His brother Rheo is currently barred from harness racing tracks and the family generally is not very popular. As Herve came to drive more—and win more—at U.S. raceways, some horsemen began to complain about his driving tactics. In July 1965, Presiding Judge Milt Taylor of Liberty Bell set Filion down for 12 days for a driving infraction, and the U.S. Trotting Association picked up his license for "repeated violations." That proved to be a turning point. Immediately after his USTA suspension a contrite Filion approached Taylor and asked for help in getting his license restored.
"He sounded sincere," says Taylor, "so I decided to help him. He was only 25, and I hated to see a boy with so much talent get messed up so young. When you look at Filion's record, you see that most of the trouble occurred between the ages of 15 and 25. Not every one of us is stable during those years." So Filion got his license back and, says Taylor, "he hasn't been in any trouble to speak of since."
"I think Herve is now trying to improve the family's reputation," says a friend. "He is trying to wipe the record clean." Doubt persists in some corners. Last year there were the strange events involving Filion's Crain Hanover, a fine trotter. Shortly before a big race at Roosevelt Raceway the judges ordered the horse scratched. Their reason was that Crain might be racing with an illegal medication in his system. The drug had indeed been administered some 60 hours earlier when the trotter suffered an attack of colic. Filion's veterinarian, Dr. Kenny Seeber, had routinely called the Roosevelt judges to advise them so and assure them that by post time all traces of the medication should have disappeared. The presiding judge refused to order the necessary prerace test and, instead, insisted the horse be scratched. Filion was so furious he filed a suit against the state racing commission and Roosevelt. "The whole thing is unbelievable," he says. "We operated strictly by the rules, and this is what happens. If my name had been anything but Filion, nothing would have come of it."
Those familiar with Filion's past consider it ironic that he is the driver Roosevelt Raceway is relying on to regain the fans' confidence in the sport following the recent Yonkers exacta scandal. Filion arrived at the New York track shortly before it was announced that seven local trainer-drivers, including three of the most popular—Carmine Abbatiello, Ben Webster and Buddy Gilmour—were under investigation by a grand jury. Gilmour has been cleared, but the other two top drivers remain sidelined.
Actually, Filion has horses stabled at four tracks. In all, he has 86 in training, most of which he owns himself either outright or in partnership with clients. But his success is especially noteworthy because the majority of the horses are claimers. "If Filion had Stanley Dancer's stock," another horseman says, "he'd win a thousand races a year. What he needs is a patron to buy him a couple of $70,000 colts each season. Then there would be no way to stop him."
"I guess Herve's alltime favorite was a horse named Rabbit," says Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. "He had four lame legs and so many bone chips he sounded like a crap game."
"And the morning after he raced," Judge Taylor adds, "he'd be so sore it practically took a derrick to lift him out of the stall."
"I won 17 races with him in '68," Filion says proudly. "He was the gamest horse I ever saw."
Unlike Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton and the other driving titans, Filion has no millionaire clients. Typical of his owners are Mr. and Mrs. Neil Helfrich of Washington Court House, Ohio. "At first we had just so-so horses, nothing much at all," says Mrs. Helfrich. "Then somebody said, 'There's this little Frenchman who's going to be really good.' So, sight unseen, we sent Herve one mare, Jerry's Filly, and he won the first time he drove her, at Brandywine I think it was. Until then she had been a very mediocre horse, but Herve went on to win close to $50,000 with her. We sent him two more mares, and we've been with him ever since. Now he and his wife are like our own children."
Such pro-Filion sentiment is not uncommon, despite the antagonism of rival drivers. The grooms like him because, in a sense, he is one of their own. After Filion drove Marlu Pride to victory in the Dexter Cup at Roosevelt Raceway last year, he was seen exchanging congratulatory hand slaps with the stable help while the other drivers gathered together in the paddock. The grooms appreciate the fact that Filion always has a full money clip in his pocket.
"Everyone knows Herve is one of the softest touches on the racetrack," says a friend. "He never turns down a groom. He's a great pool hustler—he can run the table at any time—but I've seen him let a groom who needs money beat him. Then he'll turn around and whip another driver for $200."
Among the criticisms of Filion is that he races his horses with only minimal rest, a practice that sometimes draws an argument even from assistant Mike Sherman.
"I want this horse in here," Filion will say, pointing to an entry sheet.
"But, Herve," Sherman will argue, "he's only had a couple nights' rest. You can't race him."
"Wanna bet? If I had my way, I'd race them every other night."
"Herve does not like to baby his horses," Sherman says. "His theory is that you can't win money unless you race, so start as often as possible."
One night last year at Brandywine, Filion drove Bye Bye Surprise to victory in 2:00[1/5]. The next night he brought the same horse back and won again in identical time. Nevertheless, he bristles when it is suggested that he works his horses too hard. "Anybody will tell you that in races I push my horses only enough to win," says Filion. "I don't care for fast times. I'm in this business to stay, and I've got to think about keeping my horses sound so they can race again next week." He lost Marlu Pride, the colt he had turned from a lackluster 2-year-old into a sensational 3-year-old (SI, Aug. 24, 1970), when, contrary to the wishes of the horse's owner, he refused to start the animal because he felt it was lame. The colt was turned over to another trainer who raced him when and where he was told.
Filion seems to have an insatiable appetite for driving, and his skills are derived in good part from old-fashioned hard work. He is capable of intense concentration, and when he is preparing for a night of driving he becomes so preoccupied that he is distant, even rude. Between races he studies every horse and driver in the next field, searching for an edge, something he can exploit. "He's got a photographic mind, a fantastic memory," says Mrs. Helfrich. "He improves any horse he drives," says Kiser. "Once he had a mare named Rita Gallon," says Judge Taylor. "She had a habit of freezing up before the start of a race, so Herve would jump off his sulky and run with her to get her going. Then he'd leap onto the bike, and off they would go to the gate. Somehow they always got there in time and never caused a recall, so I didn't see anything illegal in it."
A favorite Filion maneuver is to make his sulky jump sideways during a race, the better to squeeze through a tight hole. "It's something I learned from Keith Waples," he says. "Rather than move the horse's head and throw him off-balance, I hop the bike two feet sideways. I can go right or left. It's not dangerous if you know how and do it quickly."
"Filion has the hands and the brains," says his admiring rival, Dauplaise. Another driver, Roger White, declares, "He's got the spirit. He gets up and goes to bed with the same idea—winning races. I think he gets his biggest kick getting his picture taken in the winner's circle."
Most of Filion's opponents temper their praise of his skills. For instance, George Sholty declares, "Filion has a great sense of pace. He knows a horse, whether he trains him or is just catch-driving. Although he is hard to beat, I like to race against him because he is not hacking or jamming around like some drivers. But I don't think he is a wizard. Let's just say he is as good as there is."
Established drivers, perhaps understandably, resent Filion's cockiness, his banter, his so-long-sucker smile when he moves away from them with a winning horse. "One night," Kiser recalls, "I saw him turn around in the stretch and grin at Stanley Dancer. Stanley was furious."
There are all sorts of ways to leave them laughing—that it seems is Herve Filion's way.