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.
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.