by Murray Brown
“Made in the USA, born in Canada.” That was the way Sylvain Filion described his arrival on this earth. In the time period that he was conceived, his father, Yves, was racing in the United States and then moved back to Canada.
Coincidentally, we spoke on the day of Sylvain’s 53rd birthday.
The four-time O’Brien Award winner as Canada’s Driver of the Year was reacting to the results of James MacDonald’s unanimous win in this year’s O’Brien balloting; the first year that the honor was named for one of the most revered drivers to ever come out of Canada, Keith Waples.
“Even though I was a co-nominee along with James for the achievement, it was certainly most well deserved that it went to James. There was never the slightest doubt that he deserved and would win it,” Sylvain said.
It has been a long and very rewarding journey for Sylvain, a native of Lachute, QC.
There was never any doubt that he would become a horseman, in his case a driver. Apart from being recognized several times as the very best in his country, in 1999 Sylvain was the very best in the world as a result of winning the World Driving Championship.
You were born into harness racing royalty. Your dad, Yves, is a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Your uncle Herve is considered by several to have been the greatest driver to ever sit behind a horse. Another uncle, Henri, is considered by a few to have been as good as Herve and by a lesser few to maybe have exceeded him in talent. There are five other uncles who to varying degrees were very capable horsemen — Denis, Rheo, Reynald, Gilles and Marcel. Let’s start with your dad Yves.
“What can I say other than he is and always has been great. He is the hardest worker that I’ve ever known. He can and has done just about everything when it comes to horsemanship. He has bred, trained, developed and driven great horses. He also built his own training and breeding center. Any success I’ve ever achieved, I owe directly or indirectly to him. He not only is a great teacher, but what few may realize is that when he was at the very height of his career as a driver, he in effect turned the lines over to me and allowed me to drive all of the good horses in his stable. That’s not to say that he gave up driving. He didn’t. Even at the advanced age of 75, he still drives sometimes, especially when it comes to giving early lessons to the colts and fillies that he raises and buys at the yearling sales.
“But when it comes to the nitty gritty and the horses are ready to race for real money or at the major tracks, he generally calls upon me to drive them. One thing I will say about my dad and my driving, he has never, not even once, told me how to drive a horse. I guess his feeling is that if he trusts his horses to me, then he is confident enough in my ability to make the right decisions while I’m on the track.”
Tell us about Uncle Herve, one of the most legendary figures in the history of our sport.
“There is probably little about him that I can say that hasn’t been said by others and often. I idolized him as a Godlike figure. He was and will always personify the term superstar to me — at least when it comes to harness racing. Like the words from that old Carly Simon song You’re so Vain: ‘You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.’ When Herve would walk into a room, there was an aura about him. He just kind of lit the place up. He instantly became the center of attention. He knew it and I’m sure he loved it. Yet with all his bravado, he knew he was good, but he always idolized Keith Waples who he patterned his driving after and who he believed was the greatest driver ever. I remember one time when Herve was up here and dad and I took him to the races with us. Unbeknownst to him, we knew Keith Waples was going to be there. When Herve saw Keith, he went up to him and got down on one knee before him recognizing the royalty that he believed Keith to be. Keith, being the self-effacing person that he was, laughed and swatted Herve alongside the head.”
There were those who thought Henri was as good as Herve and even a few who thought he might even have had more talent.
“Henri was great — a great driver and a great horseman. So is my dad. But there was only one and there will only ever be one Herve Filion.”
When did you start working with horses?
“There was probably never a time when I didn’t. I probably never had a choice in the matter. I was just plain lucky. I was born into it. I don’t ever remember aspiring to do anything else. I was born to be a horseman and that’s what I became. Of course, like most French Canadian kids I was a follower of the Montreal Canadiens and dreamed about someday wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge, but that was just dreaming. I always knew that I was destined to become a horseman and in my mind preferably a driver. My dad had been racing in the states on the Brandywine-Liberty Bell Circuit when we moved back to Canada in 1975. Those were the glory days of racing in the province of Quebec, specifically at Blue Bonnets. I first started driving professionally at 18 at the Hippodrome Trois Rivieres, which is sadly now the only remaining pari-mutuel track in Quebec. I mostly drove my uncle Henri’s cheaper horses which he had stabled there. My first win was with a solid open horse by the name of Supreme Jade which he allowed me to drive.”
It seems as though you’ve always been a fixture and one of the leading drivers on the WEG circuit, but that was not always the case.
“Actually this is my second go around here. We first started here around 1998 and 1999 when things got bad in Quebec. The purses weren’t near good enough for us to make a decent living. Initially, I stayed here for three years and actually did quite well. But the combination of the purses getting better in Montreal and my feeling a bit homesick for Quebec resulted in our moving back to Lachute where my dad had his farm and stables. I built a home right there. We stayed there until 2012 when things really fell apart for harness racing in La Belle Province. We then came back and I’ve been here ever since.”
In 1999, you were chosen as the Canadian representative in the World Driving Championship. You not only competed in the tournament, but you also won it.
“It was one of, if not the greatest honor of my life to be chosen to represent my country in this event. Then to be lucky enough to win it — wow!
“It was held in Australia that year. Strangely enough my wife and I and David Miller and his wife were the only North Americans there. The World Trotting Conference was being held in New Zealand that year and all the Canadians and Americans stayed in New Zealand. But not to worry, we were treated beyond wonderful. The Aussies just might be the very greatest hosts and the most fun loving people on our planet. We were treated as well as was humanly possible. Of course, winning the tournament was a memory that will last forever.”
In addition to winning that championship, you’ve also won four O’Brien awards as the leading driver in Canada and have been nominated a total of five times for the award.
“It would be false modesty to say that I don’t think of myself as being a good, maybe even a great driver. But having said that, all of today’s drivers, especially at the major tracks are good and there are some, probably more than just a handful that are truly great. It’s not like the old days when trainers drove their own horses and it wasn’t rare to see out of shape 200-pound guys behind horses. If they are not good enough, today’s drivers just cannot compete. I look at us as being athletes. Most of us try to maintain our condition and stay in good shape. If we don’t, chances are that we will be quickly replaced.”
On the WEG circuit at which you regularly compete, who do you regard as your biggest competition?
“They are all tough to race against, especially when they have the horsepower. If you backed me up against a wall and said that I had to pick just one, I’d probably say Doug McNair. When he’s got a good horse in a race, you’d better have one that’s better than his to beat him. Out on the racetrack, he asks no quarter and gives none. I say this recognizing how good James MacDonald now is. He is still pretty young and will undoubtedly get even better.”
In addition to your dad, who are some of the better trainers that you’ve been around and worked with and for?
“I suppose you’d have to start with Richard Moreau. He’s won nine O’Brien Awards in a row as the leading trainer in Canada. He’s just a great horseman and one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around. He’s exceptional in how well he knows his horses and how to deal with them in terms of rigging, looking inside their heads and perhaps in classifying them and racing them in the classes in which they belong.
“Another one is Luc Blais. Maybe my dad deserves a little of the credit for his success. Before becoming the contract trainer for Serge Godin’s Determination stable, he worked for my dad for about eight or nine years. He was always a very hard worker, who was a good judge of horses and understood them well. Dougie’s dad, Gregg McNair, is also an excellent horseman. His stable always has a good assortment of young and older horses. There are others as well. If you are competitive in the major leagues including the WEG circuit, you need to be good. Otherwise you won’t be make it.”
You mentioned Serge Godin and his Determination Stable. Wasn’t there a time when you actually drove for him regularly and weren’t you offered a position as his contract driver?
“Actually my family and Monsieur Godin go back a long ways. My dad drove horses for Serge Godin’s father, back when they were trained by Jacques Paquette. Monsieur Godin himself owned half of dad’s great horse Goliath Bayama. The answer to your question is yes. I was offered the position of being the exclusive driver for Determination. I very reluctantly felt that I had to turn it down. I was very honored. However, I pictured myself in a position where down the road I might be forced to choose a Determination horse over one that was owned by my dad. I felt that in all conscience I couldn’t do that. Determination instead chose Bob McClure who is an excellent driver and has done an admirable job in driving their horses topped off by his Hambletonian and Breeders Crowns wins with Forbidden Trade in addition to several other important races with his great group of horses.”
You mentioned Goliath Bayama. Was he the greatest horse that you have driven?
“He probably was the greatest, but Runnymede Lobell was likely the fastest. To be fair, I was just a kid when I drove Runnymede Lobell. I only drove him in schoolers and baby races. I sometimes kid my dad by saying that I never lost a race driving Runnymede Lobell, but he did.”
Was there ever a really good horse that you might have missed out on driving because your dad had others that might race against it and preclude you sticking with it?
“One that comes to mind is Big Jim. I baby raced him once and thought to myself, ‘This colt is really special.’ Unfortunately I was unable to commit to driving him and Phil Hudon did a great job with him for his trainer Friday Dean and his late owner Jim Carr.”
You’ve raced in Canada pretty much all of your career. Have you ever been tempted to race in the United States at The Meadowlands and on the Grand Circuit?
“I’ve been asked that question many times. The answer is that it has probably crossed my mind once or twice, but the answer is not really. I’ve been happy and very comfortable racing in Canada regularly. I’ve occasionally crossed the border to race in a stakes race. But I’ve never been really tempted to move.”
I would classify you as being more of a finesse type driver than a speedball type would you agree with that assessment?
“I would say yes and no. I think when speed is called for, I’d like to think I can hold my own with most. However I’ve always felt that taking care of the horse I’m driving should be my number one priority. I owe that to the owner, the trainer and the horse itself. As often as not, working out a good trip might produce better results than doing all the work and then getting beat at the end does. Being the son of a great horseman, who also owns the horses that he trains has taught me that there is always next week and of the importance of bringing back a fit horse which hasn’t been hurt.”
You are now 53 years old. If, perhaps, you might not be at your peak, you are still quite competitive. What more evidence could be asked other than mentioning that this past season, you were the co-nominee for the Keith Waples, O’Brien Award Winner as the best driver in Canada. What does the future bode for Sylvain Filion?
“I’ll steal from what Billy Popfinger said to you last week. I intend to just keep on, keeping on. I realize there will be a time when I’m not as competitive as I am now. I hope that time isn’t near, but it will come when it will. I hope when that happens, I am wise enough to recognize it and cut down and maybe train a few head and relax a bit. Until then though, I intend to do what has brought me to where I am.”
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