Wearing a sweatshirt and a Nike cap and chain-smoking cigarettes, Herve Filion looks more like a fixture in your local diner than what he is: the winningest harness racer ever and a man on the verge of a comeback. To those who say he's too old and too tainted after a seven-year exile due to allegations of race-fixing, he has a message: "You know what I say," his voice crackling like a faulty P.A. "Everybody's got two things, an ass—— and an opinion."
Filion, who has 14,783 career victories—4,000 more than any other driver or jockey in the U.S.—has never been big on subtlety. In his prime he worked 14-hour days, a small, leathery engine of a man known for his endurance and his rapport with horses. Now, nearing his return at Delaware's Harrington Raceway sometime in the next two weeks, he has no doubt he'll succeed again. "I expect to win my first race," he says, "if I don't, I'll win my second or third."
In August 1995 Filion was indicted for allegedly conspiring to fix a race at Yonkers ( N.Y.) Raceway. The evidence: a wiretapped conversation he had with Danny Kramer, a bookie. Filion denies any wrongdoing beyond talking with a bookmaker: "Kramer asked if I thought I could finish third. I said, 'Sure, why not.' I yessed him, that's all I did."
In October 2000 the race-fixing charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge of tax evasion. But the damage was done: Filion, who says he spent $40,000 in legal fees, was suspended by New York's Racing and Wagering Board. Though his horses won $85 million (drivers keep 5%), Filion says he went broke. He has spent the last few years as a stable hand at a Long Island farm. To race fans it's akin to Michael Jordan wiping up sweat puddles at an NBA game.
Last November, Filion applied for a license in New York but was turned down. Then last month he got a one-year conditional license in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Though Filion is confident he'll meet his goal of 15,000 wins, others aren't as sure. "He's been away too long," says John Pawlak of the U.S. Trotting Association. "Younger drivers will run circles around him. He doesn't have the reflexes."
Filion shrugs it off. "If I feel this good in five years, I'll still be racing." He pauses, then waves his cigarette. "Hey, I dropped out of fifth grade. It's not like I know how to do anything else."