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SC Rewind: The Filion Pace

Published: February 18, 2017 9:44 am ET

Last Comment: February 20, 2017 11:13 pm ET | 3 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith recalls a rather rare happening on New Years Day 1975. The members of a famous Quebec racing family gathered to put on a memorable show for the racing patrons at Connaught Park in Aylmer and had a lot of fun in the process. It was just one race, but it was for sure the highlight of the track's special Holiday program.

​A trio of Filion brothers. From left Gilles, Hervé and Denis. This photo was taken a year or so previous to the day's events covered in today's Rewind.

Years ago racetrack operators often thought long and hard on how to come up with novel ideas that might draw a larger than usual crowd into their racing establishment. In 1975, New Year's Day fell on a Wednesday, and the management at Connaught Park thought of a great and certainly unique way of kicking off the New Year! Why not set up a special race and invite the eight driving brothers from the Edmond and Alida Filion family to participate? And so they did, and the race was appropriately named The Filion Pace.

This race would mark the first time that the eight brothers in Canada's best known harness racing family would all appear in the same race. Foremost among the participants was brother Hervé who like all the others was making his first start of the year, but unlike anyone else on the planet he was just coming off a season that saw him win a record 634 races in 1974. The Connaught track was certainly a familiar spot for everyone in the Filion clan and indeed might rightfully be called their Home Track because of its closeness (approx. 20 miles) to their home farm and also where most of them had started out their careers.

Prior to the featured race which went off as the fourth event of the afternoon, plenty of good-natured bantering and joking punctuated the early afternoon. Renald, the family jester, provided much of the laughs as he joked with his siblings and the huge throng of well wishers in the paddock. All that was at stake for the eight brothers was their fierce rivalry which dated back to their earliest days growing up at Angers. The purse money was all to be paid to the owners and as a small added bonus, Hervé gave a new whip to each owner that so graciously donated their horses for this event.

The closest thing to a prediction came from Hervé , certainly never one to stand back and let others do the talking, especially when they were all his brothers. He said "I'll tell you who's going to win this race...The best horse is going to win!", an obvious attempt to downplay the role that drivers play in harness racing.

Blue Bonnets in Montreal was the scene of Hervé Filion's 385th victory in a year, recorded on December 10, 1968, with Newport Gem owned by John Bundics. Filion broke the world record which was formerly held by Eddy Freundt of West Germany. Raymond Lemay, Executive Vice-President of Blue Bonnets, douses Filion with champagne after his record-breaking achievement, as Léo Pelletier, the trainer, looks on with wife Barbara in the background. [Hoof Beats]

In the race itself the whole affair was hotly contested from start to finish with very little single-file action. It seemed like someone was out and moving most of the time. As they left the post the first horse away was Flying Freddie hustled to the lead by Henri. By the time the field hit the half it was two rows of four, with Hervé trailing. Everyone in the crowd and all the brothers knew that he would not be content to sit too long and he didn't.

At the three-quarter pole Hervé, Doris and Gilles were all challenging for the lead. At the wire it was Stubborn Rogue under the urging of Gilles that prevailed. Already the oldest in age, he suddenly gained complete bragging rights in the family by virtue of his win. It was a close race all the way. While Hervé and Henri were both sent off at 2-1, those in the crowd holding a ticket on Gilles were better rewarded as the 5-1 winner paid $ 12.00; $ 6.10 and $3.50 across the board. It was not just a win for Gilles, it was also a birthday present as he was turning 42 that day!

Left: Gilles Filion, the winning driver who defeated his seven brothers in the special family race. He was seriously injured in a truck accident in 1959 which resulted in him having his left leg amputated below the knee. After this accident he turned to training and driving and competed at the highest level for many years, operating a large stable in Montreal as well as at Saratoga. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 78. Right: Gilles Filion, winner of "The Filion Pace" guides a trotter in full flight

The race day drew a crowd of 2,385 exuberant fans and helped to set new records for New Year's Day at Connaught Park. The betting handle of $136,146 set a new high for a January 1 program, making it the first ever time the handle had exceeded the $ 100,000 mark. By contrast the amount was just $66,000 in 1973 but did rise to $91,000 in 1974. The wagering was quite vigorous on the special event with $14,657 on the all-Filion lineup.

After the race Hervé spoke with reporters and repeated what he had earlier announced that he intended to take an extended holiday following his record-breaking year. He planned to spend some time in Angers and then head with his wife Barbara and their family for a rest in Florida which would include plenty of time on the golf course. He stated as an obvious complaint "I only got to play seven times last year..."

The 1974 season was a record one for Hervé and it saw him far surpass even what he had envisioned at the start of the campaign. He earned nearly $3.5 million in purse money with about $1.5 million credited to horses he owned. He started in 2,936 races, winning 634 of them and finishing second over 500 times. Little wonder his time on the golf links was cut a bit short.

In the way of an update Hervé just turned 77 earlier this month. Also, six of the brothers who competed that day are still with us. As previously mentioned Gilles passed away in 2011 and Henri died in 1997 as a result of a racing accident at the age of 55.

Henri Filion, one of the eight driving brothers. He was a winner of over 3,300 races in his long career which ended almost 20 years ago when he was fatally injured in a racing accident. On this day he drove Flying Freddie.

It was a fun day for the many in attendance and a fairly reliable rumour reported that the boys' father even cashed a winning ticket thanks to the heady drive by Gilles. Being the caring father he was, he apparently placed a $2.00 bet on every one! It is quite possible that some in the reading audience were present that day. I do know at least one owner of a horse in that race is as she was recently in contact with me. Her horse did not win the famous race, but I thank her for rekindling the memory of this rare and special day.

Final Results of the "Filion Pace" - Purse $1,000

1. Stubborn Rogue (Gilles Filion)
2. Johnny Drummond (Hervé Filion)
3. Jolie Richelieu (Doris Filion)
4. La Chief (Rheo Filion)
5. Miles Away (Renald Filion)
6. Sir Senga (Denis Filion)
7. Charlie W. (Yves Filion)
8. Flying Freddie (Henri Filion)

Time: 2:09.4

February 20, 2017 - 11:13 pmI was also at Connaught Park

John Demeule SAID...

I was also at Connaught Park that day and I bet Johnny Drummond...I lost, but what a day. Thanks for the memory!!!!

February 18, 2017 - 10:47 pmThe entire Filion family was

The entire Filion family was and is made up of talented trainers and drivers. Of course Herve is the best known of the Filion clan because of his exploits south of the border. I had the great pleasure to have been at Connaught that day to witness history. At one time or another I drove against all the Filion brothers and everyone of them was an exceptional driver. Now, Sylvain, son of Yves carries on the Filion legacy of great horsemanship!

Robert, your articles are much appreciated and keeps the historical narrative of harness racing current so the "now" generation can appreciate the past. Thank you.

February 18, 2017 - 5:34 pmAn Amazing family for sure.

An Amazing family for sure. Now Sylvain is carrying on the Tradition......
Great article Robert.

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