Legendary Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame driver Herve Filion passed away Thursday morning (June 22) at the age of 77. A change to the
In addition to being a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, Filion is also a member of the hall of fame south of the border. Filion recorded 15,183 wins in the sulky during his illustrious career, which is third in North America to Dave Palone (Tony Morgan is currently ranked second).
The family posted the following on Facebook hours after Filion's passing: "God saw you getting tired and a cure not meant to be. So he put his arms around you and whispered 'come to me.' Our dad, Herve Filion, crossed the finish line like the champion he is and became our angel today. A true champion he will always be -- doctors have told us this is one for the books for sure! We appreciate all the well wishes and the memories that have been shared these past few weeks. We thank you for giving us our privacy during this heartbreaking time."
A native of Angers, Quebec, Filion, who lived out his life in New York State with his family, won a whopping 16 seasonal dash titles, finished in the top five 30 times, and was the world’s leading money-winning driver seven times. Filion also won the inaugural edition of the World Driving Championship in 1970. He was known within the harness racing industry for his unworldly gift in a race bike and his unmatched work ethic. In 1968, Filion won a then-record 637 races, a mark that stood until 1986 when fellow Hall of Fame Quebec driver Mike Lachance bettered the mark. Two years later, Filion regained his crown, as he went out and won 798 races during what was the first of three consecutive dash crowns. A year later he surpassed his own record with 814 wins (others have since broken that record).
In 1971, Filion was named the winner of the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s Professional Athlete of the Year. He also received the Medal of Honour from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Additionally, he won a Hickok Professional Athlete Award. Over the course of his career, Filion was honoured with several year-end awards given out by the then-Canadian Trotting Association, United States Trotting Association and Harness Tracks of America.
In 1975, Filion became the youngest person ever inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame. A year later, in 1976, Filion, who was 36 at the time, became the youngest driver ever inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. At that point Filion had already amassed almost 6,000 career wins. Fast forward 30 years and Filion’s win total had surpassed 15,000, which, at the time, made him the winningest driver in the history of North American racing (his total was nearly 3,000 more than his closest competitor at the time).
Filion sat behind thousands of horses during his career and he was given the chance to steer his fair share of quality stock. To name just a few of his star mounts and moments, Filion upset the great Albatross with Nansemond in The Little Brown Jug, a race he later famously captured with Hot Hitter in 1979; he won the Dexter Cup with Marlu Pride, and the Realization Pace with Adios Waverly, Keystone Pebble and Otaro Hanover. Also, in 1986, Filion drove Quebec’s great trotting mare Grades Singing, who won the 1986 Maple Leaf Trot, American Trotting Championship and Breeders Crown Mare Trot. During a 1970 program of racing at Brandywine Raceway, Filion won five races on one card, each of which were sub-2:00 miles, which was a massive achievement at the time.
After having started from humble beginnings, Filion cobbled together a massively successful career. Along with nine siblings, Filion was raised on his family’s farm in Quebec. “We were poor when I was a kid,” he said, “three boys to a bed and two horses to a stall.” He has said that he was “about 11” when he started thinking about being a driver. Two years later, when he was 13, Herve was hoisted into a sulky for a race in Rigaud, Quebec and won the race with Guy Grattan. Filion’s brothers – all of whom became licensed drivers – would eventually branch out from Angers to raceways in Quebec and Ontario before relocating south of the border to the United States.
Filion’s determination to succeed saw him study the crafts of the sport’s top reinsmen. After having surveyed the landscape, Filion tried to replicate the approach of future Hall of Fame inductee Keith Waples. Waples’ unique style of being able to shift the bike around in tight quarters was a tactic that Filion adopted and refined to what many observers eventually referred to as the ‘Herve Hop.’ “I can move a sulky maybe two feet to the right or to the left,” Filion said.
As his Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame biography explains, Filion, in his heyday, often drove six or seven races at a matinee in New Jersey, then flew by helicopter to New York for six or seven drives at either Roosevelt or Yonkers. Many times after driving in an early race or two at the New York tracks he would sneak behind the tote board and hop a helicopter for a short ride to the airport, where he would board a private jet flight for a flight to Toronto and a drive in a stakes feature at Greenwood Raceway. The hustle paid off for Filion, as he would make numerous appearances at small tracks instead of resting in comfort at home. Filion was fond of saying, “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be carrying a lunch pail to work every day.”
Filion’s world record win total of 15,180, which stood for years, was surpassed at the Meadows on July 5, 2012 by Dave Palone. Filion was in attendance to witness the event. Palone shook hands and hugged Filion, whom Palone grew up idolized. “I am very happy for Dave,” said Filion. “I’m happy for the industry of harness racing. It’s doing good…and I’m very happy that someone broke (the record), and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, Dave Palone.”
Filion would go on to crown his incredible driving career in grand fashion on October 7, 2012 at the Ottawa area’s Rideau Carleton Raceway, where he went out and won three races in his final performance in the sulky (Filion would also go on to participate in the Legends Day Trot a year later in 2013, in what was technically his final trip in the bike). Prior to his memorable night at Rideau, Filion said he was pleased that his last hurrah would occur in the Ottawa Valley, where he started. “I won’t race anymore, I am retired. I’m 72, working on 73… I feel good, but you know, I’ve had enough racing horses. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time with the family.”
As U.S. Hall of Fame great Billy Haughton once said, “There are a lot of good harness drivers, a few great ones… and then there is Filion.”
The Filion family has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for memorial services to be held in both Canada and the U.S. Any remaining funds will be donated to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame & Museum in Goshen, New York.
Visitation will be held Wednesday, June 28, from 2:00 - 7:00 p.m. at Freeman Funeral Home, 47 E. Main St., Freehold. The visitation will be followed by a procession to Freehold Raceway for a final lap around the track for Filion. All are invited to meet at the winner's circle at 7:15 p.m.
Funeral service will be held Friday, June 30, at 2:00 p.m. at Paroisse de L'Ange Gardien, 255 Rue du Progrès, Gatineau, Quebec.
Please join Standardbred Canada in offering condolences to the family and friends of Herve Filion
(With files from the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame)