by Murray Brown
I first got seriously involved in harness racing in 1958 or thereabouts. At the time there was one man who stood above all the others. At the age of 95, he still does. His name is Keith Waples.
Many of you are too young to have ever seen him drive. The word maestro best describes him in the bike.
He might have been the greatest driver I have ever seen.
Herve Filion and quite a few others thought so and tried to emulate him.
If he had been so inclined, he could have taken his whip (although he might not have needed a whip, because he rarely used it) and gloves and gone to New York where there is no doubt in my mind that he still would have been the best.
But the bright lights of the big city never really appealed to Keith who was nicknamed “The Thin Man” by Baz O’Meara, the harness racing writer for The Montreal Star.
He was content in his milieu and really did not ever want to leave Canada except for the occasional big race to participate in, or in winter spending time in Florida.
What does this have to do with Herve Filion?
A great deal, I would say.
In 1958, there was an 18-year-old driver named Herve, or by the English speaking horsemen sometimes called Harvey who had reached second place in the driver’s standings on the Blue Bonnets/Richelieu Park circuit.
Herve Filion idolized Keith Waples. He knew Keith was the best and tried his best to follow Keith’s driving style.
Back then, Herve was almost strictly a catch driver. He didn’t have his own stable and rarely trained a horse. Along with Hughie Bell in New York, they might have been the first of the breed now known as catch drivers.
Back then, just about every driver was also a trainer. For Herve, training his own stable was to come later on in life.
I idolized the young man. If he had asked me to shine his boots, I wouldn’t have hesitated.
His day in the late ‘50s and the early to mid ‘60s consisted of the following:
He would wake sometime in late afternoon usually between 3 and 4 p.m.
The first thing he would usually do was to go for a steak at The Bonfire, a restaurant then in the proximity of Blue Bonnets Raceway.
After fueling up on food, he would then go to the judge’s stand and watch the films (there was no video tape then) of all the races, sometimes more than once, that Keith Waples had been in the night before or previously.
Then he’d go to the track for warmups.
Back then, catch drivers actually warmed up all the horses that they were scheduled to drive. I know it may be hard to believe, but that was actually the case.
Herve was very much a party animal and a night owl in those days, but I never knew him to be much of a drinker, if at all.
If they were racing at Richelieu Park, he would generally be found at the Hotel Richelieu, a favorite horseman’s hangout outside the backstretch of the track.
Afterwards, I profess ignorance, but I can guess.
If they were at Blue Bonnets, he had the bright lights of Montreal — one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America — to explore.
What Herve, to the best of my knowledge never knew was that we once shared a girlfriend. It never bothered me knowing it and I doubt that it would have bothered him, but I thought that there was no need to let him know.
My favorite Herve story deals with the aforementioned Hotel Richelieu.
I didn’t have a driver’s license, nor access to a car until I was in my 20s and working for the Miron Brothers racing and breeding stables.
Richelieu Park was located as Far East as one could possibly travel on the island that constitutes the city of Montreal.
On the other hand, I lived on the far western side of the city, relatively close to where Blue Bonnets was located.
Was it a chore to get to Richelieu? You bet it was. Except for the times I could go with some of my car driving buddies, I needed to take two streetcars and two busses, which took almost two hours to get there.
Did it bother me? Probably. But not enough to keep me away.
On nights where I did well at the windows, I’d treat myself to a cab ride home. On other nights, I went the two streetcar, two bus way.
Back to the Hotel Richelieu. One Saturday evening after the races I found myself there schmoozing with a group of horsemen.
Time passed quickly. Before I realized it, the time was past 1 a.m. and public transportation had stopped. I had no way of getting home. I suppose I could have found a tack room or an empty stall.
Herve quickly said, “Kid (he always called me kid), I’ll take you home.”
He had a flashy 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible.
Wow, I had a chance to ride with Herve for almost an hour. Was I ever excited.
First, he turned Elvis on the radio as loud as he possibly could.
We were driving on Sherbrooke St east at 120 miles per hour with Elvis singing.
The radio started getting static, so while we were driving at that crazy speed, Herve stood up and started adjusting the outside antenna on the car. I was absolutely terrified.
I hollered, “Herve, please slow down. We are sure to get into an accident and end up in the hospital.”
Herve, in his inimitable manner, said, “Kid, if we get into an accident, no hospital for us.”
Another time, I was dead broke.
I hadn’t been doing well at the windows and I owed some money. I was with Herve and I asked him if I could borrow $100. A hundred was a lot of money to me, circa 1960. I told him I wasn’t sure when I could pay him back.
He reached into his pocket and took out his huge wad and peeled off two hundred dollar bills. “Kid,” he said, “You asked for a hundred, here’s two. You can pay me back whenever you have it.”
Years later, I believe it might have been the first time he came to Hanover, I gave him the $200 and told him what it was for. He said he didn’t remember that happening. Of course, he didn’t remember, because literally hundreds of people had “borrowed” money from him.
He refused to take the money.
Years later, after his passing, I got even with him by depositing the $200 with interest into a gofundme account for his family.
Another time on a cold, dark and gloomy winter day, a group of buddies and myself were at a loss for what to do.
“Let’s go to Angers (Herve’s hometown) and visit Herve,” I said. Back then they didn’t race in winter.
Of course, none of us knew where Angers was, except that it was somewhere near Ottawa. Finally, we get there.
“How are we going to find Herve?” someone asked.
I saw a pool room. Not knowing for sure, I said, “that’s where Herve has to be.” Surely, he was.
He might have been almost as good playing pool, especially snooker, as he was at driving horses.
He was pleased to see us and amazed that we drove all the way there just to say hello to him. He introduced us to everyone there.
He bought us dinner and treated us as though we were kings. None of us drank back then, so alcohol was off the menu.
It may not sound like a great way to spend a day, but it might have been one of the best that I can remember.
Some might say that this story would not be complete without mentioning the problems Herve encountered along the way.
I can’t say that he was pure as the driven snow, but to me, he was.
He never told me anything that wasn’t true. He never led me in the wrong direction. He never treated me with anything but the utmost respect and kindness.
I believe that any misdeeds he might have been guilty of were a product of his upbringing.
He was raised in a poor, hard-working family and was rarely, if ever, taught the difference between right and wrong. He was taught that it was only wrong if you got caught.
He had virtually no education, but was one of the smartest street-smart individuals I’ve ever known.
I don’t believe he even graduated grade school.
Of course, the argument could be that we are all ultimately responsible for what we do. That’s true, but overcoming one’s environment and upbringing can be difficult.
His primary downfall was due to the horrendous fire suffered at his Capital Hill Farms which killed all of his then large stable of horses and all the stables on the property. Nothing was insured.
He had to rise from the ashes, never to attain the stature and wealth that he previously held, but to still remain among the best harness drivers ever.
As to the last accusations leveled against him which kept him out of racing and kept him from earning a living for a few years — and kept him unlicensed in New York and New Jersey indefinitely — those accusations were almost entirely without merit.
As Lawrence Sheppard once said to Judge Milt Taylor when Frank Safford was accused of doing something against the rules, “Milt, you might be in the right church, but in this case you are in the wrong pew.”
How do I know the accusations against Herve were without merit? All I can say is that I do and I know it unequivocally.
In this life of ours, everybody that I’ve ever known is a mixture of good and bad. Nobody is lily white. We are all shades of grey.
As far as I am concerned, Herve was a light shadow of that color.