The Hitter got hot for Herve

Hot Hitter, the $6 million colt, looked as if he'd rather nap than race in the Jug, but Herve Filion, the $27 million driver, aroused him for an eye-opening straight-heats win
September 30, 1979

Herve Filion, the flamboyant 39-year-old Canadian driver who wins more harness races than anybody else, was trying to explain last week how it is that he wins so much. "I look, I think, I see, I go," said Filion. And how! For 10 of the last 11 years he has been the sport's top driver, and in 1974 alone he won 637 races and an astounding $3.4 million in purses.

Every year is a great year for Filion, who has 7,006 career victories. And 1979 seems certain to be his best one ever, seeing as he has already earned $2.7 million and has 301 wins. "I win a lot because I drive a lot," he says. "The only race I can't win is one I'm watching. I drive fast horses, slow ones, mediocre ones. It don't matter."

Not at all. Anything with four legs seems capable of winning when Filion's in the sulky. He has been at the starting gate in more than 28,000 races since 1966 and has driven 1,684 times so far this year. Nothing gets him down. A little more than a year ago, a fire ravaged the barns at his Englishtown, N.J. farm, killing 40 horses. "That set me back about a half a million dollars," says Filion. "It made me work harder. In this business you have to have a cast-iron stomach. There is glory one day, disappointment the next."

At the moment, glory clearly has the upper hand, perhaps because (a) Filion is always so certain that he will win, and (b) he has an uncanny knack for knowing just what to do to do so, when to do it and to whom. All of his legendary abilities dovetailed at last Thursday's Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio, the most important race of the year for pacers. "But don't forget," said one driver, "that he also had the best horse."

No question about that. Three-year-old Hot Hitter, a $21,000 cheapie when he was purchased as a yearling by Trainer Lou Meittinis, has all the chips, and the colt appears to know it. After all, in his last 16 starts he has been no worse than second. Waiting for the race, Hitter was positively dozy, but Meittinis promised, "He'll wake up when he gets to the track." Sure enough. Hitter won the Jug in straight heats (first horse to win twice, wins) before a beery crowd of 41,027. The people sat on bales of hay in their pickup trucks and on webbed lawn chairs and went berserk in adulation—especially when Herve stood on the sulky seat after his victory and rode back in front of the grandstand like Ben Hur. "Disgusting," said an oldtimer. Wrong. It was wonderful, a classic demonstration of the Herve verve that has made him the sport's folk hero.

Filion drives primarily in New York and, like that city, he is bold and brassy and sometimes outrageous. He will race on the outside when everyone figures he should be inside; he will race from behind with a horse that likes to go out front. Jim Miller, who drove runner-up Tijuana Taxi in the Jug, says of Filion, "You don't say, 'I think he's the best.' He is the best." Billy Haughton, whom Filion overtook in July to become the leading alltime money-winner (more than $27 million), says of Herve, "He just thinks fast."

By getting home first, Hot Hitter won $90,000 of the $226,455 purse and raised his earnings for the year to $716,839, a single-season record for a harness horse. The old mark was $703,260, by Abercrombie last year. Asked before the race if he thought he would win, Filion responded, "Oh, yes, sure."

What's your strategy?

"I have no strategy. I drive to win."

What's your philosophy?

"Take the shortest route and save something for the last eighth of a mile."

In his first heat, Hitter was kept away from the rail for better than half a mile by Haughton's Set Point, but the latter tired and Hitter cruised home in 1:57[3/5]. "Being on the outside didn't matter," said Filion. "I could have raced the whole mile parked like that and won." In the next and deciding heat, Filion led narrowly until the final turn, when he abruptly powered ahead for a six-length lead and then withstood a furious challenge by Tijuana Taxi to win by a neck in 1:55⅗ only one-fifth of a second off the world record. "A step past the wire I had him beat," lamented Taxi driver Miller.

But things have not always been so glowing for Hot Hitter. Meittinis got him cheap mostly because Hitter's father, Strike Out, had generated no great appeal. Although the old man had won the Jug himself, he was a bad-gaited colt with decent but not great dam-side bloodlines. However, as Al Winters of Mill Neck, N.Y., one of Hot Hitter's three owners, says, "There is only a very small relationship between price and accomplishment."

In '78 Hitter was third-best in his class. And this year he found himself competing against a number of talented colleagues, most notably Sonsam. The speedy Sonsam became the highest-priced harness horse ever ($6.3 million). Still, Filion had sniffed earlier this summer, "He don't act like no super horse to me." The two have met 10 times; each has won five races. Sonsam tended to be awful on half-mile tracks like the one in Delaware, on which Hot Hitter—and Filion—excel; Sonsam was glorious on mile tracks, setting an age record of 1:53[2/5] at the Meadowlands. Then, in a workout at Roosevelt in early August, Sonsam took a bad step and fractured a sesamoid in his left fore, ending his racing career.

Just two days later, a secret deal was signed in which Hot Hitter's owners sold 60% of their colt for $3.6 million, thus in a stroke pushing his total worth to $6 million. The buyer was another of the sport's freewheeling New Breeders, Lou Guida, a Merrill Lynch executive from southern New Jersey. The deal wasn't announced until a press conference at New York's 21 Club last Monday.

Guida's hefty interest in Hitter is part of what he sees as an ongoing David and Goliath battle, in which he is locked in mortal combat with the dominant breeding farms, primarily Castleton in Kentucky and Hanover in Pennsylvania. And David isn't fooling around. Guida also owns five of Sonsam's 40 shares; five other shares were recently sold for $200,000 each, upping the colt's value to $8 million. "I remember seeing both Sonsam and Hot Hitter at Vernon Downs," says Guida, "and I thought, 'If Sonsam is the greatest horse ever, then Hot Hitter is the second-greatest.' " Guida, the son of a Jersey barber, asked Morton Finder, who owns Pine Hollow Stud and is one of the sport's high rollers, to see what could be done to arrange the Hot Hitter deal. Guida subsequently sold half of his interest—or 30% of Hot Hitter—to Finder.

Then Guida made a move even Filion might have admired. He paid $5 million for half interest in Niatross, a 2-year-old pacer. Why? "Horse people are not businessmen. I am," says Guida. "And my business judgment told me 'Buy!' Besides, he left me breathless."

Which is how Guida—with a lot of help from Finder—is leaving the sport. Now three fine colts—Sonsam, Hot Hitter and Niatross—will stand at Pine Hollow Stud in New York. Not in Kentucky. Not in Pennsylvania. And all three have bloodlines that make them compatible with the daughters of Meadow Skipper, a considerable—if esoteric—advantage. Meadow Skipper is so far and away the premier sire of harness horses that there is growing worry that inbreeding could become a serious concern. The three new horses will provide what is called an "outcross," which should solve that problem nicely. Says Guida, "There is only one important question to ask yourself in this business: Did I make a profit?"

Guida knows about high finance. Some years ago, while putting together an ultimately successful $90 million deal to purchase Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he found himself $80 million short, but undiscouraged. That's a fine trait to have in racing. These days Guida says that he—and a few friends—have "unlimited" funds to spend on horses. "But only on quality horses," he adds. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I only deal in horses that are at least 9½."

Which is a pretty good description of Hot Hitter. "He's almost in a class of his own," Meittinis says. True, and so is Filion. As he tried to walk through the adoring crowd in Delaware, he was besieged. "Herve, Herve, my man, Mr. Hands," one cried. Another fan insisted that Filion attempt to autograph a beer can. One demanded that Filion autograph his hand; another just followed him around, applauding. Then, like Superman, Filion changed into his traveling clothes, put on a straw hat and sunglasses, grabbed his briefcase and rushed out through a hole in a back fence.

From there, it was onto a chartered plane that got him back to New York in time to drive that night at Yonkers. Filion laughed. "I like to go where the money is," he said. "If I wouldn't be successful, I wouldn't like it so much."

TWO PHOTOSAfter finishing his afternoon's work by narrowly beating second-choice Tijuana Taxi to the wire, Filion wowed the Jug crowd with his Ben Hur act.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)