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Monday, February 3, 2014

A Look Back: June 23, 2002; Pierce Jumps Ship, Does Anyone Care?

Saturday was Herve Filion's 74th birthday and as a result, VFTRG correspondent Pete Lawrence went back to his files to find an article he wrote 12 years ago for a harness magazine which was never used.  The article talks about the legend Filion was and his return after a period of exclusion due to an alleged race-fixing scandal in New York for which  Filion plead guilty to failing to file New York State income tax returns.

I realize many people have definite opinions regarding Filion but the purpose of this post is to relive a period of time where certain drivers were revered and how harness racing was once covered by the press.  Now, some of the changes with regard to reporting comes from the Internet, but we seem to have lost the drivers who have a legend-like following.  It is within this context this article is presented.

Glad to Have Made the Effort

By Pete Lawrence

I make it a point to do as little as I can most Sundays. But I’m glad I made the effort to get to Freehold Raceway this past Sunday, June 23, for the simulcasts.

I work six days a week, up at 5:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and if I happen to attend the races at Meadowlands on the weekends (or more likely, the simulcasts at Freehold), as I do a lot this time of the year, that makes for some very long days.

But last Sunday was -- like attending the Prix d’Amerique simulcast in January -- a must see for me. It'd been a seven-year gap during which Hall of Fame driver Herve Filion successfully defended himself against race-cheating charges, then waited and waited for New York to issue him a license to drive, which as I write this, it still hasn’t.

I understand Pennsylvania has, or soon will, license him (and it seems like last year Florida was on the verge of it), but Sunday, Herve, now 62, reappeared at Harrington, looking fit and trim in his trademark red, white and blue colors, apparently none the worse for his forced hiatus.

A few words here on Filion. Before fellows like Ouellette, Case, Lachance, and before that, Abbatiello, Filion ruled the drivers’ roost at Yonkers and Roosevelt. (Remember Roosevelt? More on that some other time.) It seemed that he could win batches of races, at what was the top circuit in America (and maybe the world), practically at will.

This was after Bob Farrington’s heyday in Chicago, but preceded the more recent Palones, Morgans and Cases. Herve racked up numbers like 400 wins one year, then 500, then 600, then more. It was pretty amazing. Other “ironmen” like Jack Moiseyev, Joe Schwind and Cat Manzi came along afterwards to race Herve-like at Freehold in the afternoon and elsewhere at night, but Filion was a pioneer in that department. (He even used a helicopter for a while, if I remember correctly.)

In the 1970s, the New York City newspapers gave harness racing lots of space. The Post, for instance, most days gave harness a full page (sometimes more) for entries, full charts, a photo now and then, selections, big-race coverage and commentary by a writer named Henry Hecht, who may or may not've been related to the famous editor Ben Hecht. Henry once penned a song about Herve, called -- and sung to the tune of “Jesus Christ Superstar” -- “H-E-R Superstar.” (“…Better, by far, than they say you are…”). Herve was officially “Her” because his brother Henri was “Hen,” by the way.

And Filion’s prime time in New York in the early to mid-1970s coincided with my original enchantment with the sport. I kept volumes of newspaper clippings, but my racing scrapbook really started as a Filion scrapbook. And besides the Post, the Daily News, the defunct Long Island Press, and even the staid Times got in the act. The Times, in fact, actually ran a harness feature every Sunday in its early edition.

Herve seemed to be everywhere. And I was such a fan that my late mother, a major knitter, made me a perfect knock-off of Herve’s colors as a skiing sweater. I wonder what ever became of that sweater.

The Harrington story elsewhere in this magazine probably covers the Sunday action pretty well, including perhaps that Filion got up on the sulky seat, chariot-like, after winning with Alyshima in race seven (after finishing off the board in races 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6), so you don’t need it here. That first one gave him career victory number 14,784, followed by two more, in races 9 and 12, which kept Herve thousands ahead of everyone else in North American racing history, harness or thoroughbred. Even at age 62, there seems little reason to believe Filion can’t finally reach 15,000 this year or next, either in Delaware, as he vows he will, or somewhere else.

So I’m glad I attended the simulcast last Sunday. There’ll be more wins for Herve Filion, probably lots more. But there’s only one that’s the first since Aug. 7, 1995.

News Item:  Pierce abandons Meadowlands:  The Super Bowl break cost the Meadowlands Ron Pierce, at least until the Grand Circuit begins.  Racing at Yonkers this weekend, Pierce regained some of his old magic which seemed to have been lost racing in East Rutherford.  As a result, Pierce has decided to race weekends at Yonkers.  While this may cost the Meadowlands a 'name' driver, it gives someone else a chance to shine.  I wish Pierce luck but don't let the proverbial door hit you in the back as you head out.

News Item: Trainer with a Rep Shows Up at Laurel:  Lest anyone think harness racing is the only form of horse racing with questionable trainers, here is a story about a miracle trainer from Florida who shows up at Laurel.  The trainer was tossed by Calder by being excluded, avoiding the slowness of the regulatory system (mind you there was no evidence of wrong doing with the exclusion) and gets stalls at Laurel Park.  Is it good for Laurel or bad for racing?  You decide.  

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