When we last visited Herve Filion, the French-Canadian harness-racing driver (SI, Sept. 6), he was confident of breaking his 1970 world record of 486 victories by winning at least 500 in 1971. Last week he proved that what Filion wants, Filion gets. Going into September he had 286 wins—and a fun schedule of up to 11 daytime races at New Jersey's Freehold track, plus another nine nightly at Roosevelt or Yonkers Raceway near New York. So Filion added 55 victories in September and 65 in October for a total of 406.
"Then I got hot," he says. Yes, he did. He won 93 races in November, including nine of 11 on the lucky 15th. He also broke his wrist in a racing accident on the 17th. Didn't mean a thing.
Filion returned two days later with a cast on his arm and four pain pills in his belly—and won three at Freehold and another at Yonkers. On the 22nd he took eight of 13, including six at Freehold, only the fourth time a driver had won that many on a single card. On Friday, Nov. 26, Filion won the fifth race at Yonkers to tie his record 486, then moved on with a winning drive in the ninth race.
Going into last week, Filion was only 12 away from No. 500. Newspapers called him the "Iron Man," a name Filion does not particularly like. On the way to Freehold one day he was reading New York's Daily News in the back seat of his white Cadillac. Suddenly he thumped the newspaper angrily with his cast. "Look at this stuff," he said. "People must think I'm a working fool. They must feel sorry for me, but why should they? I don't work any harder than anyone else."
Just more often and at more places. During the entire year he appeared at a total of 28 tracks, including 22 in the U.S., four in Canada and one each in Australia and New Zealand. From April 1 through Nov. 30, Filion raced all but 28 days: he took only one day off in June and July.
"Yeah," said Filion stubbornly, "but I'm enjoying every minute of it." Didn't so much time with his horses leave very little for his wife and two children? "Look, I see more of my family than most men," said Filion. "I go home every night and my wife has a dinner waiting for me, and I get eight hours sleep. That's my secret: I like to eat and sleep and I never worry when I drive a bad race." What with one good race and another, Filion probably will net about $300,000 for the year.
On a gloomy, rainy Monday afternoon last week, Filion won twice at Freehold to reach No. 490. His cast got so wet he was afraid he might need a new one, but en route to Yonkers he placed it next to the car heater, and it dried out nicely. That night, despite a hard, steady rain that turned the track into goo, Filion won twice more. Afterward he hurried home, where Barbara had his dinner ready, as usual. He stayed up until 2 a.m. watching a TV movie.
On Tuesday, as Freehold closed its meeting, it was so damp and cold that Filion bundled up in a fur-lined driving suit. It gave him the appearance of a small boy ready for a frolic in the snow. He drove in eight races, winning three, to put him only five away from 500. On the way back to Yonkers, Filion slouched in the Caddie studying the night's card. "No, I don't think I can do it tonight," he said. Then he snuggled down into the upholstery and went to sleep.
At Yonkers it was miserably cold and windy, the horses breathing contrails of vapor as they whirled around the track. Filion won two of the first three races. But when he lost the next three almost everyone in the shivering crowd of 12,266 figured there was no way he could get to 500 before the evening was through. "I don't know," said Filion, winking. "I've always got a shot." He thereupon scored easy wins in the seventh and eighth races: 499. One race to go. Up in the press box Bob Beslov of the Yonkers publicity staff began to worry because "we don't have the victory wreath yet." Filion dutifully finished second in the finale.
Wednesday found Filion baby-sitting while Barbara went out to have her hair done in anticipation of the winner's-circle pictures that night. Around 7 p.m. Herve showed up in the Yonkers drivers' room and watched closed-circuit reruns of the previous night's races before put-tiny on his red, white and blue driving snowsuit. He was entirely innocent of Roger Maris-style tension. "I know I will get it sooner or later," he said.
Sooner, hoped the track, because now the flowers were ready and Robert A. Glasser, chairman of the New York Stale Harness Racing Commission, was on hand to preside over the ceremonies. It was another cold, windy night, and in the first race Filion finished next to last. The crowd of 13,329 groaned and fell back into the warm enclosures beneath the grandstand. For his second drive of the night—and his 1,978th of the year—Filion had a horse named Thunder Royal. In the paddock somebody noted that it would be fitting if Filion could get No. 500 with this particular horse. The overwhelming majority of his lifetime wins have come behind claimers, cheap and otherwise, and Thunder Royal. an 11-year-old, was not only the oldest but also one of the cheapest horses in his stable.
Leaving from the No. 2 post, Filion dropped Thunder Royal into the fourth position for the first quarter mile. He took the lead just before the half and still held it as the field hit the stretch. "It's all over now." said a groom, and indeed it was. As the crowd cheered them home, Filion and Thunder Royal drew away to a two-length victory.
Barbara Filion came out of the stands to smile and shiver at Herve's side while the cameras flashed away. The track gave Filion $500, one dollar for each win. A wreath of" white carnations, red roses and blue plastic something-or-others was placed around the neck of ol' Thunder Royal, who had never received so much attention and affection. Then Filion led his horse back to the paddock, exchanging wisecracks with fans along the way.
Filion paused only momentarily to accept congratulations and chat with the press. What more could he achieve? Well, either late this year or early next he should pass Billy Haughton's career record of 3,445 wins, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that Haughton is 16 years up on the 31-year-old Filion. "All I want to do now." said the champ, "is win more and more races." With that he hurried out into the frigid night to get a horse moving toward the next race.