by Joel Kravet
(Editor’s note: Joel Kravet grew up in the Bronx and began going to the races at Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway in the early 1960s and became an avid handicapper. He later became a groom and a standardbred breeder and owner. He lives in Manhattan and operates a successful business there and still owns harness horses.)
We New Yorkers were spoiled in the 1960s because the best horses and the best horsemen competed at Roosevelt and Yonkers. We saw all the greats, equine and human.
We had Billy Haughton, Stanley Dancer, Del Insko, John Chapman, George Sholty, Buddy Gilmour, Hugh Bell, and… well, I could go on and on.
Yes, there were many top drivers racing regularly at the New York tracks, but things changed when a young French-Canadian named Herve Filion showed up. It didn’t take us wise guys making $2 bets to realize that Herve was leaps and bounds ahead of the best drivers in New York.
Simply put, Herve was a magician in a sulky. He could do slight-of-hand tricks that other drivers never saw coming. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of the horses he was racing against, and would put the competing horses in positions where they simply couldn’t win. Herve could control several other horses in a race just with the subtle moves he made. He was a genius.
His brother, Henri, was a top driver, too, and Herve could control a race to make sure Henri won. It was like Herve was mowing the law for Henri to sweep to victory.
We called these guys from Quebec the “French Connection” and they were so professional and competent.
Herve also had a full shedrow of horse stabled down at Brandywine then. One night, one of his horses warmed up dead lame. The judges called Herve because they were planning to scratch the horse.
“No, no, no!” pleaded Herve. “He just pretends to be lame.”
Sure enough, when the race went off Herve won like a thief in the night with his “lame” horse.
Herve had a driver who would pick him up in the morning, take him to Freehold to drive in the afternoon, and then either Roosevelt or Yonkers in the evening. He would give the driver some betting money, knowing that the wise guys would be watching to see what races the driver was betting.
Herve might tell the driver to bet the second and fifth, and the wise guys would watch the driver and bet Herve big in those races. You could almost be guaranteed that Herve would win those two races, but he might also win the third and seventh. Herve was just that much better than the other drivers. He was clearly in a class by himself.
Buddy Gilmour was another great driver. He seldom had stakes horses early on, but he had terrific hands. Buddy just knew horses. Guys like Buddy had grown up around horses. Horses talked to him.
When George Sholty and Del Insko arrived from the Midwest, they didn’t have top stock in their stable, but they showed ability as catch-drivers, which were still rare in the early 1960s. Sholty and Insko really proved to be the death knell for the heavy drivers in New York. Sholty could really whip a horse in a stretch drive when he first came to New York.
These drivers all worked hard — and played hard, too. Some drank a lot. They didn’t grow up in a classroom; they grew up on the racetrack.
There was a Chinese restaurant called Gam Wah across the street from Roosevelt Raceway, and many of the drivers would go there to cool out after the races. They just wanted to relax. The wise guys all knew that and, of course, they would hang around buying drinks for the drivers and asking for betting tips. The drivers would just string them along as long as the free drinks kept coming. The wise guys were name droppers. They loved to say, “My friend John Chapman told me the other night…”
These guys like Gilmour, Sholty and Insko were all safe and respected drivers. All drivers weren’t that way, particularly some of the drivers who came down from Monticello. They could be dangerous on the track. Monticello was known as “Roller Derby with sulkies.”
We also had old Hugh Bell, a little fellow who was underappreciated. He had a craggy old face and probably didn’t weigh 125 pounds. When a trainer put Hugh Bell on a horse as a catch-driver, he got results. Hughie could sure drive one.
I often noticed that some of the second trainers for major stables were terrible drivers. They would get to drive when the boss was out of town racing in a stake. Horses often just didn’t perform that well for them. But the boss man probably didn’t mind that. After all, the owner was paying the big name guy to train and race his horses, and it wouldn’t look good if a second trainer won.
The next week when the boss was back in the town, he’d win with the horse. The owner was happy and kept paying the bills.
We’d always have shippers coming into New York. That’s often where the money was. I remember Bob Cherrix from Maryland. He’d race in New York in the winter with some horses bred and owned in North Carolina or Maryland. He was a very competent horseman and he’d win his share of money during the cold weather months. When April came and the big stabled shipped north, he’d head back to Liberty Bell or Brandywine.
Of course there were a few bad drivers. I remember one guy whose horses seldom hit the board. They might occasionally pick up a fourth or fifth place check. Once a year, his Class C trotter would win, and the wise guys would pontificate, “They gave him this one for feed money.”
This is hard to believe, but another trainer who drove only once in a while did the impossible. I saw him once leave from the rail one night and be parked three-wide into the first turn. No joke!
That takes some driving ingenuity.
We had all kinds of drivers at the New York tracks, but back then Herve was in a class by himself.