Last year Herv� Filion spent so much time behind a horse that he should have somehow been shrunk and chromed as a hood ornament for people who like such things as tiny pacers pulling tiny men over the radiators of their pickup trucks. Filion rode in his sulky far enough to have driven from his home in Long Island to his birthplace in Quebec and back 3� times—a record 2,999 miles to be exact. (If he hadn't lost count in midseason he would have gone the extra mile.) At the end of 637 of those races, Filion was a winner—another record for a single season. That broke his 1972 record of 605, which broke his 1971 record of 543, which broke his 1970 record of 486, which....
So it goes for this man who hangs out with horses a lot. Now Filion is only a feedbagful of victories away from becoming the winningest driver in history, the Henry Aaron of pacing and trotting. That distinction belongs to a West German named Hans Fr�mming, but at 65, Fr�mming races little these days; as of Aug. 1 Filion, with 5,283 lifetime wins, was only 13 behind. And Filion is only 35—a mere whippersnapper among his peers—which gives him 30 years to catch the German.
If Filion were still going all-out as he was a year ago he would have passed Fr�mming already. But by Aug. 1 Filion had driven only a paltry 782 races, less than half as many as he had driven by the same time last year. He has all but ceased his celebrated helicopter hopping from afternoon races at Freehold, N.J. to evening races 60 miles away at Yonkers or Roosevelt Raceway in New York. And he even took two months off this winter, unheard-of for Hustling Herv�, as he's been called. At one point last year he grumbled about taking two days off because he had the flu. So he took only one. "He had only two drives that night," said a groom. "If he had had more than that he wouldn't have been so sick."
Herv� (pronounced air-vay, but he answers to everything from Hervie to Harv) came to the U.S. from Montreal in 1961, a spirited 21-year-old who could speak no English but understood standardbred pretty well; he already had eight years' practice at that. He came from a family of harness drivers; his father, a farmer and trucker by trade, owned a few horses on the side, and eight of Edmond Filion's nine sons became harness drivers, the best known of them, besides Herv�, being Henri, who is a year younger than Herv� and frequently races against him on Eastern tracks.
Since setting up shop here Herv� Filion has been the winning North American Dash driver every year since 1968; was named the world's top French-speaking sportsman in 1969, beating the likes of Jean-Claude Killy; was awarded the Order of Canada Medal; became the first harness driver to win $3 million in one season; and set a record that has been unapproached since he established it and may stand for as long as mares eat oats. On Aug. 1, 1970 at Brandywine Raceway in Delaware, Filion drove five winners in one night. Good enough. All five were horses he had trained, and he was part owner of three of them. Even better. But the stunning part of Filion's evening's work was that all five horses had times under two minutes. "That was my happiest moment in harness racing," says Filion.
This sort of thing makes Herv� Filion one of the world's wealthiest athletes, though as for recognition his name ranks somewhere near William E. Miller's. One reason for his comparative obscurity is that Yonkers Raceway is not exactly Shea Stadium (or even the Cow Palace, where the 1964 Republican Convention was held) and harness racing has not yet bumped Tom Seaver or Joe Namath off the home tube. So no one is pounding on the 5'6", 155-pound, gap-toothed, balding Filion's door, begging him to model slacks or endorse toothpaste or hair spray. All Filion's earnings come directly from the track. Last year he drove horses that earned $3.5 million. If he did nothing but drive and train the horses he would have made something like $350,000 from the standard division of the purses. But Filion also owns at least a piece of most of the horses he drives so he collects a chunk of the owner's 50% too. His Capital Hill Farms Inc., the corporate name for his racing enterprises, owns an interest in about 150 horses—the total changes almost daily—which are trained at the tracks where Filion races and at a 27-acre farm in Pemberton, N.J. Capital Hill Farms employs about 50 people, including two other Filion brothers, and has a hefty million-dollar budget. Spit-and-polished red-white-and-blue harness bags and equipment trunks for each horse (the colors are those of the Montreal Canadiens, a team Filion greatly admires) testify that Capital Hill Farms is a class operation.
Filion keeps a tight rein on his empire from an office in a small trailer at Roosevelt Raceway. "Paper, paper, paper," he says, speaking English that is less than perfect but far from broken. "Myself, I enjoy it, but my trouble is I quit school after the fifth grade. I make 'orses my business because they are all I know."
Sharing the office with Filion are two men on whom he has relied heavily: Canadian Bob Beggs, who used to sell heavy construction equipment but looks more suited to operating it, and Gene MacDonald, an American who was a top driver at Roosevelt 10 years ago. They keep the books and answer questions for Filion, such as how many horses he owns at the moment and what day it is—small matters he tends to overlook. Says Beggs, "Hervie can be great at some details—he knows the condition of every leg on every horse in the stable—but he'll keep some things in his hip pocket for a few days."
There are two desks in the office for the three men. No matter that neither belongs to Filion, because he can't sit still long enough to get much use from one. He bounces between the chairs in front of Beggs' desk as quickly as his attention shifts from subject to subject. He takes care of business in this manner every morning as he smokes a large part of his two daily packs of Marlboros.
One or two afternoons a week Filion takes a helicopter to his farm. The chopper lands next to an old house by the half-mile track, and before the blades have stopped spinning, Filion is strutting through the stable like a little general, inspecting each horse in its stall. He knows most of the horses by name, even though there are many he has never driven. The dozen grooms who live on the farm, many of them young women, fairly stand at attention. Filion prefers female grooms because, he says, "They are proud, they love the animal, they care about it." Filion fires questions—sometimes in French—at each groom and moves so fast the groom must follow him into the next stall to answer. In about 20 minutes he checks nearly 30 horses, and he is back in the helicopter for the short hop to the track at Freehold, where his brother Rh�o trains another score of horses. There the routine is the same.