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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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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.

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