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Trot Feature - 1970 WDC

While Canada prepared to host the 2017 World Driving Championship, Canadian harness racing fans and participants were struck with the sad news that we had lost a true Canadian icon - the man that was also the winner of the inaugural WDC in 1970. By Debbie Little

With the 1970 World Driving Championship (WDC) being the first of its kind, it was impossible to know how the competition would play out.

Unless, of course, you were Canadian. Then you expected the great Hervé Filion to win, no matter what.

Saskatchewan native Ray Remmen was splitting his time that year racing between Windsor Raceway and in Western Canada, and remembers that the WDC was common knowledge on the backstretch.

“I don’t think anybody in Canada thought Hervé would lose. He was one of the few that had a mystique and deservedly so. When I was a kid, years ago, it was Keith Waples and Joe O’Brien, and that’s all we ever heard about. Then when Hervé came on the scene, it was Hervé,” Remmen said.

According to the Harness Tracks of America (HTA) President Preston Jenuine, the World Championship was a logical extension of the association’s efforts to improve world-wide harness racing, and foster international competition and good will.

The eight drivers representing seven countries were the best-of-the-best, according to New Zealand competitor Peter Wolfenden.

“They had the best of every country, where now they don’t always do it that way. The people that were competing were all well-known because they had to be the best. The leading driver of the country had to go. They didn’t want the second best,” Wolfenden said.

Wolfenden, best known for training and driving Cardigan Bay, Downunder, would go on to represent his native country a total of seven times in the WDC. He admitted that drivers today are racing for so much money, that it’s harder for them to take the time off to compete.

Australia’s representative was stakes-winning champion and top race-winner in New South Wales, Kevin Newman.

The North American drivers, Filion (Canada), Stanley Dancer and George Sholty (both of the U.S.), finished 1-2-3 in the 1969 HTA Driver of the Year competition, which is based on a formula that took into account money earned, races won, and in-the-money driving percentage.

A tournament was held in Recklinghausen, Germany, to determine the three drivers from Europe that would be invited. In order to take part in that tournament, the 11 drivers had to be the national champion of his country based on races won in 1969, and all competitors looked forward to the opportunity to compete in the WDC. Eddy Freundt of West Germany emerged as the winner with Italy’s Nello Bellei and Ernst Fischer of Austria tied for second.

The WDC took place over a 10-day period in April and traveled to seven HTA tracks across North America, starting at Louisville Downs in Kentucky. As expected, Filion came off the gate strong with two wins and a second in three starts on the opening night.

New York’s Saratoga Raceway saw no winners for Filion, but the native of Angers, Quebec, recorded two seconds and a third in three races to keep a comfortable margin atop the leaderboard.

Filion always said: “The only race I can’t win is the one I’m watching.”

Never was that statement more true than at Michigan’s Hazel Park, where three scratches in four races left Filion spending most of his time in the stands. Luckily for Filion, HTA allowed for scratches by crediting the driver points based on his total for the entire series.

Even without the charismatic Canadian, the remainder of the competitors put on a show in Michigan, with perhaps the highlight coming from Fischer, who won two races in a row, the second of which was a pacing handicap. In his 32-year career, Fischer had never handled a pacer before.

The tournament reached its halfway point at Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania, a track where Filion was driving regularly at the time.

Hall of Fame publicist Marv Bachrad was the track announcer at Liberty Bell and remembers the night clearly.

“I recall it was a beautiful night at Liberty Bell with a packed dining room and a filled grandstand and clubhouse, with many of the sport’s leading dignitaries and owners on hand,” Bachrad said.

“He [Filion] was a very confident driver. Even though he didn’t really know any of his WDC opponents, he was confident because he had faced and beaten the best in North America. He was proud to represent his native country and knew every piece of dirt on the Liberty Bell Park 5/8ths-mile track,” Bachrad added.

At the end of the night, Filion had a narrow 14-point margin over Italy’s Bellei, by virtue of two second-place finishes in three starts.

“Hervé was a superhero at Delaware Valley tracks and was ‘the people’s choice’ on all horses he drove,” Bachrad said.

Joe O’Brien had a Grand Circuit stable at Liberty Bell, and Remmen remembered a story someone told him about O’Brien and Filion.

“Somebody told me that Joe O’Brien, when he was at Liberty Bell, when he wasn’t racing, he went to the grandstand just to watch Hervé drive,” Remmen said.

Ohio’s Northfield Park saw Filion extend his lead to 50 points with a win, a second and a third in three starts. Sholty also scored a win, a second and a third and moved into second place.

In four races contested at Ontario’s Mohawk Raceway, Filion failed to hit the board, setting up for a final showdown at Blue Bonnets in Montreal, Quebec.

“If he had lost to Sholty or Dancer, it would have been ok. But I think we all thought he’d overcome it like he did everything else. How could he lose? And it didn’t matter if it came down to the last day,” Remmen said.

A 19-year-old Mike Lachance, a native of St. Augustin, Quebec, was at Blue Bonnets for the last night of the competition.

“Back then for those big races or special races, there was nobody in North America that could do a better job than Blue Bonnets. They did everything in a high-class way,” Lachance said.

Lachance trained and paddocked a horse in the competition that was driven by Dancer. Lachance said he told Dancer to put him in a hole and not to put him on the lead and Dancer listened to him and scored his only win of the night.

Newman won two of the five races and Sholty also won one, bringing the competition down to the 25th and final race of the tournament.

Lachance watched the final race by the track kitchen on the backstretch.

“I saw that Hervé came at the end, three-wide or four-wide and he just won and I remember having goose bumps all over. It was a big thing in Montreal because we felt so proud that it was one of ours that won that. People were very proud of him,” he said.

Denis Larochelle of Mirabel, Quebec, knew Filion from the time they were children, and he drove on the card at Blue Bonnets earlier that night. He remembers how proud Filion was to win the competition.

“He was proud of that, and don’t think the province wasn’t proud of him. You can’t ask for better than that. Circumstances made it that everything fell into place. That’s a lifetime dream. He made people notice that the kids from Quebec get along pretty good with horses. A lot of them went to the States because Hervé showed them the way,” he said.

When all was said and done, Filion, the youngest driver in the competition at 30, won with a total of 472 points. Sholty was second with 418, Dancer finished third with 392, Newman was fourth with 298 and Wolfenden rounded out the top five with 285.

With so many foreign drivers in the competition all wanting to be crowned champion, each race was hotly contested. Absent was the typical single-file race style associated with North America. All drivers won at least one race of the competition, and seasonal, or all-time attendance and mutuel records were set at all seven tracks.

John Campbell, from Ailsa Craig, Ontario, was just 15 when Filion won the WDC but remembers reading about it in the paper.

“Everybody knew who Hervé Filion was. Hervé is an icon, and not only in our industry, but in the ‘70s he was an icon in Canadian sports. He won Athlete Of The Year in Canada one year. When you think about that now, in today’s world, where we’re not on a national level like that, that’s pretty darn impressive,” Campbell said.

“Hervé had a remarkable career, but he certainly was a nationwide sports hero during the ‘70s,” he added.

The success of the competition had the HTA already starting to plan a second competition for the following year.

Wolfenden remembers how important the competition was to the HTA’s Stan Bergstein.

“It was very enjoyable because it was run really well. Stan ran it, and ran it properly. He wanted it to be a good experience for everyone,” Wolfenden said.

Bergstein always appeared to be a fan of Filion’s, and said on more than one occasion that Filion winning the first championship helped to make it special.

Hervé’s youngest brother, Yves, remembers it meant a lot for his brother to not only win the championship, but to do it in Quebec where it meant even more.

“I’m sure winning that championship, where he first started to drive here in Quebec, was a big thing for him. When Sylvain won [in 1991] everyone was still asking him about his Uncle Hervé,” Yves said.

“We know where we come from, and Hervé ending up on top of the world for a while was a real big thing for the family,” he added.

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