Sylvain Filion: 10,000 driving wins and one “Monster”

 by Melissa Keth

While several Woodbine Mohawk Park drivers will take part in the 2023 Breeders Crown finals at Harrah’s Hoosier Park, the winningest of them all will be driving at his home track in Campbellville, ON. Sylvain Filion reached his 10,000th victory Monday (Oct. 23) in race 1 at WMP, with 2-year-old pacing filly One More Bet (p, 2, 1:52s; $38,133), trained by Jean Tourigny and owned by Les Ecuries Morel Inc, Mirabel, QC.

“We got over it early!” said Filion, remarking on the milestone win Thursday (Oct. 26.).

While he wasn’t counting down himself, he said his friends were watching closely.

“So, I knew Monday night I was only missing one, going to the track, and I kind of knew I had a good shot in the first race,” he said. “It wasn’t really a surprise, but it was good to have it done early.”

He told HRU he began his driving career in 1987.

“At Three Rivers [now Hippodrome 3R in Quebec]…,” he said. “I had my first driving win in Rideau Carleton, in Ottawa, with Supreme Jade [p, 8, TT1:53.1m; $413,015], my dad’s horse.”

Sylvain’s father is Yves Filion, brother of the late Hervé Filion. Although Hervé died in 2017, his record of 15,183 driving wins remains No. 3 in North American history.

“I didn’t feel any pressure being Hervé’s nephew, you know,” said Sylvain. “It might have opened doors, actually. So, I didn’t really mind at all.”

Being a Filion helped Sylvain get started in the industry, but only because he took initiative himself. “Paying attention, yeah,” he said. “They weren’t really good at giving out advice, but I had my eyes open, and I saw a lot of things that they would do, just small things that they would do, that would separate them from the others. Not really secrets, but I mean that they would study the program really good, and try to know every horse in the race, because you never know when you’re going to race against them again, or you’re even going to drive one of those horses. So, it’s good to know every horse in the race.”

That interest in understanding each horse as an individual has stoked his lifelong fascination with the sport. Now 54 years old, Sylvain said he continues driving for the same reasons he began.

“The passion, and the connection with the horses,” he said. “There’s no two same horses; when you sit behind them, they’re all different. That’s what I like. You’ve got to learn their habits, and it’s a fun time being behind different horses.”

Sylvain said the best race of his career was the 2001 Breeders Crown Open Pace, won with Goliath Bayama (p, 5, 1:48.1s; $1,503,428).

“You got it right on; that’s my favorite horse of all time,” he said. “That’s the horse that gave me the biggest thrills ever… The horse was racing good, and the owners wanted to try him [at The Meadowlands]. I was really happy with their decision. My dad owned half of the horse, and I know he’s got a lot of faith in me, so I was sure I would keep the drive.”

He said the stallion known as “The Monster from Montreal” passed away two years ago.

“My dad sold his part of him, so Serge Godin [of Determination, Montreal, QC] owned him,” Sylvain said. “He was at the farm at Guy Corbeil’s in Quebec, a real good home.”

After Goliath Bayama’s Breeders Crown, Sylvain’s second-favorite race was another from the “Monster.” “When I finished second with Goliath Bayama in the [1999] North America Cup, to The Panderosa, it was my first big race, and I was ‘mic’d up’, and I ended up second, which I was pretty happy about,” he said. “He was born and raised on the [Bayama] farm. I was really proud of him.”

Rebeka Bayama (p, 5, 1:48.3m; $722,363) also stands out as a Breeders Crown memory for Filion.

“She was kind of related to Goliath Bayama,” he said. “She was a Leader Bayama, and Leader Bayama was a brother to Goliath.”

A regular top-class Mohawk/Woodbine pacing mare in 2011-2012, she finished third to 2012 Breeders Crown Mare Pace champion Anndrovette and runner-up Drop The Ball in the Woodbine Racetrack final.

This season’s standout horse for the Filion family is Funtime Bayama (p, 2, 1:50.1s; $182,767), the Canadian and WMP record-holder for 2-year-old pacing geldings. The homebred won five straight WMP stakes races for trainer Richard Moreau, with Sylvain in the sulky, before finishing third as the 1-9 beaten favorite in his Ontario Sires Stakes Gold Super Final Oct. 13 at Mohawk.

Funtime Bayama “ended up sick after that race,” Filion said. “Because he’s a big horse, my dad only lightly staked him. Right after the race, we put him away, so hopefully next year, we expect big things from him. Next year, if he comes back healthy and sound and everything, I think we’ve got a good prospect for the bigger races.”

The gelding is currently turned out at Yves’ farm in Quebec. He’s just the latest successful Bayama-bred.

“It started a long time ago,” said Sylvain. “It started with my grandfather. Then he gave the name to my dad’s business, and my dad kept it on. Now he’s cut down pretty much [due to age]. He only has two broodmares, and he’s going with seven or eight [racing] right now.”

Another Filion is currently helping Yves at the farm.

“Justin, that’s my brother, he’s 50,” said Sylvain. “He didn’t work with the horses all these years. He just came back… and he’s working with my dad. He’s driving a few in Ottawa [at Rideau Carleton] right now. He’s doing good. He loves the horses.”

Sylvain lives in Milton, ON, close to Woodbine Mohawk Park, where he primarily drives today.

“Thirteen minutes away; pretty convenient,” he said.

When the Quebec racing industry collapsed, he made the decision to permanently relocate.

“In 1999, I came to Toronto for a couple years, and I made great connections,” he said. “So, I thought I could come back, and with the help of Richard Moreau, I thought I could maybe do well… I was able to make connections, guys like [WMP trainer] Gregg McNair, so that helped my decision to come back here.”

He isn’t driving at Hoosier Park on Breeders Crown weekend, instead joking that he appreciated the absence of top WMP drivers James MacDonald, Doug McNair, Louis-Philippe Roy, and Bob McClure.

“It makes my job easier,” Sylvain said with a laugh.

While still in demand as a driver, Sylvain said he’s more focused on his home track at this point in his career.

“I decided to cut down on traveling,” he said. “At my age, I like going to Mohawk, but going to other tracks, it’s almost like a pain in the ass.”

The 1999 World Driving Championship winner was also a four-time Driver of the Year (2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016) at Canada’s O’Brien Awards.

Relocating from Quebec and avoiding injury helped with Sylvain’s rise to the top.

“I was lucky throughout my life,” he said. “I didn’t have too many accidents. I never really got hurt, so that’s one of the reasons I was able to reach 10,000… I am cautious, but you need some luck, too. I was very fortunate.”

While he’s visited Hippodrome 3R in the recent past, Sylvain said making a living as a horseman there is difficult, with just one pari-mutuel track in his home province.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s really political. If they don’t get a track in Montreal, I can’t see the business growing.”

Even so, the family’s love of the standardbred sport continues into the next generation with Sylvain’s 10-year-old daughter, Stella-Rose.

“She loves the races,” he said with pride. “She was really happy that I reached 10,000 wins. She made me a short video. It was unbelievable.”

Pursuing Hervé’s record of 15,183 driving wins isn’t Sylvain’s next goal.

“I would have to live until I’m 100 to do that!” he said with a laugh. “You know what, I’ll keep driving here at Mohawk and try to win as many races as I can, and try to stay healthy and avoid wrecks.”