Search

STILL VERY TALL IN THE SULKY

June 04, 1990
June 04, 1990

Table of Contents
June 4, 1990

Viewpoint
Update
NBA Playoffs
Lenny Dykstra
Indy 500
Golf
Stanley Cup
The Class Of '90
Tennis
Secretariat
Point After

STILL VERY TALL IN THE SULKY

Harness racing's winningest driver, Herve Filion, is out there scrapping for more

By Douglas S. Looney

It's 10:26 a.m. Herve Filion walks out the front door of his $1.4 million home on three Long Island acres. He climbs into the backseat of the black Ford Thunder-bird. Jimmy Lennon, Filion's driver for the past four years, slides behind the wheel for the 75-mile trip to Freehold (N.J.) Raceway. Says Lennon of their relationship, "We have our beefs."

This is an article from the June 4, 1990 issue Original Layout

Filion responds, "Yeah, but mostly we have our eggs."

It's the start of a day that will last 13 hours, 45 minutes, and already the visitor is puzzled. Which does not seem to bother Filion in the least. "You show me an eight-hour man, and I'll show you someone just passing through life, surviving. That's all," he says.

O.K. That one we can handle. Filion leans forward and inserts an Elvis tape, then settles his 5'6", 158-pound body back against a pillow and lights his fifth cigarette of the very young day. Fifty-one more will follow.

Says the 50-year-old Filion, "It's like this about smoking. If I really take care of myself, I'll grow old and die. If I don't, I'll just do the one."

He takes a long draw, coughs and begins to sing along, off-key, "Don't be cruel, to a heart that's true...."

And so begins another day in the life of harness racing driver Herve Filion. Driver? No, legend. And that's faint praise. Look what the man hath wrought:

•Filion has 12,208 wins—No. 2 on the list is Carmine Abbatiello with 6,966, and Abbatiello hardly drives anymore.

•In 14 of the past 22 years, Filion has been the leading driver in races won, and he has tied for first one additional year; No. 2 on the list is Michel Lachance, who has been the top winner four times.

•Filion has been named Driver of the Year 10 times; No. 2 is Lachance, who has been accorded the title three times.

These achievements also reflect an intriguing personality. Filion has never won the sport's premier trotting race, the Hambletonian, and in fact has driven in it only once. Twice he has won the Little Brown Jug, the top race for 3-year-old pacers, and he has triumphed in another 12 major stakes races. But he doesn't care whether a race is big or small. "To me," he says, "they are all the same." Unlike other major figures in the sport—men like Delvin Miller, Stanley Dancer, the late Billy Haughton—Filion has no interest in training horses, either. He is officially listed as trainer for 62 horses, but he readily admits he doesn't do any of the training, leaving it to others.

Nor, in these days of huge bucks for top athletes, is he rich by superrich standards. In addition to his Long Island home, he owns all or part of 50 horses—18 of whom are in training—with an estimated value of $250,000. Not a flaming fortune. Average his earnings over the 29 years since he won his first race and it comes out to $117,145 a year. Not bad, of course, but paltry by contemporary sports star criteria—a fair-to-middling baseball player can make as much in two or three years as he has in his career. Herve Filion is simply a grind-it-out driver who will go anywhere to drive anything. Nothing more. And he wants nothing more.

Says Filion, "After they say 'Go!' all I do is see what happens."

Is that all there is to it? At Yonkers Raceway, which lies just north of New York City, leading trainer John Brennan draws little circles in the dirt with his whip and says, "Herve is so far above everybody else, it's pathetic. There will never be anybody as good as him again, ever."

And there are no signs that Filion, one of 10 children born and raised on a farm in Angers, Que., is slowing down. Last year he won a record 814 races. That broke the mark of 798, set just one year earlier—by himself, of course. But he was also the first driver to win 400 races in a single year (1968). And 500 (1971). And 600 (1972). And when he isn't winning, often he is second (9,832 times) or third (8,444), which can also be rewarding. Altogether, Filion has finished in the money an astounding 50.1% of the time. Says Freehold race announcer Jack Lee, "If I had one race for my life, I'd want Herve to drive it."

But even such testimonials to Filion's talent seem to pale before his work ethic. He drives afternoons at Freehold and nights at Yonkers on at least four days a week, sometimes five. Depending on track schedules, Filion will climb into a sulky six days a week, and sometimes a seventh. Just ask him. He's under contract to nobody and, thus, to everybody.

Now the T-Bird is cruising past the Coney Island exit of the Belt Parkway, and Filion pops in a Chuck Berry tape and considers whether he likes living at racetracks. On two occasions another leading driver, Donald Dancer, tried to match Filion's schedule. Briefly. "It's too much," Dancer said.

Not for Filion. He has kept this pace, without breaking stride, since 1970. In an average week, Filion drives in 90 races. "He'll race until he's not able," says his wife, Barbara. Says Dancer, "You have to have the desire, the opportunity and the talent." Filion hits that trifecta. Every day. But it's Filion who also cautions the visitor against such extravagant praise. "Don't believe everything you hear around these racetracks and only half of what you see," he says.

It's 11:38 a.m. when Lennon pulls into the Marlboro (N.J.) Diner on Route 9. Filion has been stopping here for years. "If you stay home and wait until it comes to you, it won't come to you," he says. The visitor ponders that as Filion orders three eggs, scrambled.

"You been good?" the waitress inquires of Filion.

"Good is my middle name," says Filion.

Then he gets to talking of how he spoke little English, only French, when he tried his luck at racing at Vernon Downs in upstate New York in 1961. Among the phrases he knew was "ham and eggs." So it was ham and eggs, three meals a day. Finally, somebody told him how to order a steak. He did. The waitress asked, "How do you want it cooked?" Filion didn't miss a beat: "Ham and eggs."

It's 12:38 p.m. when Filion signs in at Freehold, one of 50 drivers who are trying to earn a living. "This is a business with a lot of disappointments but very few surprises," says Filion. "Lots of valleys and mountains, but the mountains are steep."

Real steep. The driver usually gets only 5% of what the horse wins. If the horse finishes worse than fifth, the driver gets nothing. Last year, Filion's horses won purses totaling $5,256,670; his share was $262,833.50. Filion is philosophical about it: "I sit down on the job. I let the horse do the work. I guide him. If the horse gets beat, it's not my fault. If he wins, it's not my fault. Sometimes I make the wrong move and it turns out to be the right move. The point is, you have to have something between the shafts. Horses are all about the same. It's just, some are faster than others. I'm out here to win money. Not for the love of this or that. The money. People say money is the root of all evil. That's wrong. Not to have money is the root of all evil."

It should follow that Filion is the sport's alltime leading money-winning driver. Horses he has driven have earned $67,944,125. Going along for the ride behind them has earned Filion $3,397,206.

Filion succeeds, partly, because no one race is very important. After all, he has started approximately 65,000 races (pre-1961 records are spotty, so it's impossible to get an exact number). Filion says his biggest single check was for $15,000 for driving a horse whose name he can't remember, in some big race at Yonkers that he can't remember cither, in some year he can't recall. Investigation shows the check was for $15,820.08, the horse was Cares-sable, the race was a Breeders Crown event and the year was 1985. "I treat a horse race as a horse race. That's all," says Filion. "Nothing more. You win, you lose, you beat, you get beat."

At the moment, however, nothing is more important than Smoothford in the third at Freehold. It's 1:46 p.m. Filion and Smoothford finish second. Filion's check is for $33.75. His face is covered with mud. "It happens." He shrugs.

In the fifth, Filion drives Seilson Regent. Wins. And earns $132. "I had a good horse," Filion says, shrugging. In the seventh he is a way-back fifth with Tony's Star. His check is $7.75. "It happens." He shrugs.

In the eighth, he's second with Happy Sapphire. His check is $56.25. "It happens." He shrugs.

It's 3:49 p.m. and time for the ninth race. Filion is driving Yallcomebacknow. Announcer Jack Lee is screaming, "Herve is rushing up on the outside!" Says Filion, "The horse win perfect." His check is $125. In the 10th, Filion drives favorite Jasmine Lobell. She's second. "What happened is the favorite got beat," explains Filion. Oh. His check is $33.75. In the 11th he drives LJM to victory. His check is $62.50. "It happens," he says, shrugging. "He's just a cheap claimer but it's a win for me and the owners like him. So that makes him a beautiful horse."

Three wins, three seconds, a fifth, $451 earned. The day is half over.

It's 4:59 p.m. when Filion climbs into the backseat of the Thunderbird again. "It was a nice day," he says. "A beautiful day." Lennon points the car toward Yonkers, 62.5 miles distant, up the New Jersey Turnpike. Elvis is singing about a teddy bear, Filion is singing along, off-key, and smoking. Then dozing.

Filion wins because he was born to it. Growing up on the farm in Canada, he used to work with horses, dragging timber from the mountains to a loading area. "I know horses all my life," he says. "I guess we just get along." In the spring of his fifth-grade year, Filion stopped going to school for a week. Then two weeks. Then three. It was then it occurred to him that he must have dropped out. He never returned. "I don't think kids like school," he says. "I was one of them." He was good, he says, in "what you call it? Addition?" At 13 he won his first harness race, at Rigaud, Que., a track near his home. He insists he likes to read, although any title of a recent book he has enjoyed escapes him for the moment. The visitor is left to assume that Filion's taste in literature probably is concentrated in two areas: race entries and race results.

Praise for Filion is universal. Fellow driver Jack Moiseyev says, "Follow Herve and he'll get you up in the race." Walter Case, leading driver at Yonkers, calls Filion "the master." Driver Cat Manzi shakes his head and says, "All he docs are things that ordinary people can't. He gets 'em to go and keeps 'em going. His style is to lay back, and then work around our mistakes."

Oddly, Filion's lay-back-then-get-'em-at-the-end style has led to whispers that he doesn't always try. And Filion seldom uses the whip, which to a guy at railside who has money on the horse can smack of lackadaisical effort. Says Filion, "First, any horse will race better from behind, plus, hitting the horse with the whip when it doesn't matter won't help." Filion is from the old school, where it was taught that positioning was the racer's edge. These days, most younger drivers simply take a horse out full-bore: If the animal lasts until the end, he wins; if not, he loses. Driver Larry Setola says, "Somehow he doesn't make a horse feel tired. He gets the horse thinking that the mile shouldn't be over with yet." Filion sees nothing magical in this. He says, "Sometimes people bet on me instead of the horse. They shouldn't do that. But since I have been at it 37 years, I have to say I'm an expert." Pause. "On the rear end of horses." Timing is everything.

It's 6:23 p.m. when Lennon pulls into a parking space at Center Raceway Diner, across the street from Yonkers Raceway. "We should have been here at 6:11," says Filion. He knows. "Surprise me with some fish," he tells the waitress.

A racetrack regular drops by his table. Filion offers to buy the man a martini but he declines. "Can't. I'm taking some sort of pills." Conversation goes on, and in a little while the man allows that while a martini is off-limits, he can see nothing wrong with a Manhattan. Filion calls the paddock judge and tells him he'll be a little late.

It's 7:36 p.m. when Filion walks into the locker room and begins putting himself together in front of Locker 241. It starts all over again. He's fifth in the first race, gets a check for $10, and shrugs. "It happens. I never claim to be the best. Just as good as the rest." He watches a bit of a movie, Murder by Death, in a drivers' lounge before he goes out to finish dead last in the third race. He's last again in the sixth as the mare he drives takes a bad step and pulls up lame just when she is taking over the race. "It's not where you start, but where you finish. It happens," he says. He's seventh in the seventh race. It is not a great night. And now it's starting to rain.

It's 10:02 p.m., and Filion has some time to kill before he is scheduled to drive again. It has turned cold. So has the talk. Filion is thinking back to Aug. 4, 1978, when a fire at the farm he owned in New Jersey killed two of his employees and 45 of the racehorses stabled there. "You try to turn the page, but it's hard," he says. That year he lost $480,000.

Like any horseman, he is worried about injuries. He figures he has fallen 75 times in his career. The worst was four years ago at Freehold, when he broke his left collarbone and cracked two ribs. He missed three months of driving. "You know you're going to kiss the ground," he says, "but you just hope it's not serious. Or fatal, God forbid." And his eyes wander to the road out of the racetrack, to the turn where, four summers ago, harness racing's much-admired Billy Haughton was fatally injured. Nobody says anything.

It's 10:49 p.m. as Filion drives Gamblers Four, second choice in the ninth, across the line first. He gets a check for $150. At 11:28 he drives Silvio to fifth in the 11th race. His check is for $10.

He's changing clothes again and lamenting that "the young generation takes kindness as a show of weakness." Seems Filion loaned a woman trainer at Yonkers $1,000 at Christmas. The trainer still owes him $700. This night, she had a contending horse in a race, and she chose another driver. "It's a funny world," says Filion. "But it's our world."

It's 11:39 p.m., and Filion is back in the Thunderbird, smoking, listening to Elvis sing about Suspicious Minds, as Lennon hustles the car toward the Bronx River Parkway. It's 30.2 miles to home. For the day, Filion drove in 13 races, finished first four times, second three times, failed to get a check three times, and earned $621. He traveled 167.7 miles. "I just keep turnin' the page," he says.

It's 12:11 a.m. when Filion reaches for the knob on the front door of his house. He goes in, flips on Arsenio Hall, has a doughnut, a Coke and a cigarette. "What I do to keep in shape is smoke so I won't gain weight," he says. Filion looks over the next day's entries for Freehold. "I'm driving in 11 of 12 races," he says. "It will be a beautiful day." Filled with winners? "It happens," he says, shrugging.

He's starting to wind down and in his house, normally alive with the sounds of his six children, all is quiet: "I guess if I didn't win, I'd be fed up with the grind. Goals? Well, winning more races is mainly my goal. But I guess what I hope most of all is that in the future when people discuss harness racing, the name of Filion will come up in the conversation somewhere." It happens.

PHOTOJOHN ABBOTTAt Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, Filion gives free rein to his show biz leanings.PHOTOJOHN ABBOTTThe tote board at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway displays the news of yet another Filion victory.