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Douglas S. Looney
June 04, 1990
Harness racing's winningest driver, Herve Filion, is out there scrapping for more
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June 04, 1990

Still Very Tall In The Sulky

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

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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.

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