The more and more I have the opportunity to speak with people within the harness racing industry, the more and more my view on humanity changes for the good. For all the negatives in the world that grab the headlines, a shadow is cast on what should be the brightest of headlines, which is the horsemen and women that form harness racing.
Despite the uncertain future of horse racing in Ontario, many within the industry remain positive and hope for the best. The best being the Ontario Government will come to terms with the racetracks to ensure further growth, such as we see south of the border in states like New York and Ohio.
Having to deal with these issues over the years is one of Canada's top harness racing drivers, Sylvain Filion.
"In 1999 I came here to Ontario and after three years I went back to Quebec. I was there for five years and then came back here." Sylvain explains.
Making a big move from his native hometown in Quebec,made the move to Ontario as racing in Quebec declined and became virtually nonexistent. "They quit racing in Montreal" says Sylvain. "The racing was very good there, but when they quit racing I came to Ontario."
"It sounds kind of like what is happening here" Sylvain notes. "They had money from the slots and then the Government took the money away and that is what killed harness racing. So hopefully that won't happen here." It must be deja vu for Sylvain.
There is one positive rumor circulating that the government may have a plan to help the horse racing industry. There is word that negotiations are under way that will ensure the success of harness racing for the next five years, if not longer.
Speaking with Sylvain, he's currently feeding his adopted daughter, Stella-Rose and little Stella-Rose will be turning one in a few days. Sylvain and his wife Dominic adopted Stella-Rose eight months ago and they could not be happier. The cheerfulness is Sylvain's voice radiates of pride and joy all due to the new edition to the Filion family. Will Sylvain and Dominic adopt another baby so Stella-Rose may have a brother or sister? Sylvain says possibly but it's too soon to say for sure.
"It's about time I became something" Sylvain says with a laugh. "Right now it's my greatest achievement. My wife and I couldn't have a baby and we have wanted a baby for over twenty years so we adopted and it has worked out. We are very very happy!!"
Sylvain comes from a family with deep roots in the horse racing world. "I was born with horses all around me. My father still has that farm in Quebec and my grandfather had 5 or 6 horse as well. That's how my father and uncles got started." Sylvain says.
Sylvain's father, Yves won the North America Cup and the Prix d'Ete with Runnymede Lobell in 1988. One is of his uncles, Herve, is the world renowned Hall of Fame horsemen.
"There's still a lot I want to do, there's big races I'd like to win, like the North America Cup, (which takes place at Mohawk racetrack). I came second once and my father won it. The Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug are ones I would like to win."
"At the start of each year, we cross our fingers and hope a horse comes through that can have us do great things." Sylvain says about any potential break out horses. Sylvain does not train any horses, as he puts it, he is 100% focused on driving. If he had to pick one of his favorite horses out of all he's driven, he feels Breeders Crown winneris the favorite.
As for Sylvain preference for track type and style, he says he enjoys the one mile tracks like the Meadowlands compared to the 7/8th mile tracks. Yes, that one eight makes a difference. "When you're on the 7/8th, you have the whole stretch to get into position and at the mile tracks, when you leave the gate you have an eighth of a mile until you hit the first turn" is how Sylvain describes the flow. "If you decide to leave hard, you might have a long drive going into the first turn." Meaning you're stuck on the outside leading to a longer trip for the horse and burning unnecessary horse power.
During the warm months, Sylvain loves to play golf and is an avid fan of the sport. The one golfer he admires most is 'The Lefty', Phil Mickelson. "I like his aggressive style, every time he goes for broke when he plays." Sylvain says.
When the weather turns cold, Sylvain and his wife Dominic usually head south for a vacation getaway. This year was a tad different as the happy parents were basking in the warmth of their new bundle of joy, Stella-Rose. Happy Birthday Stella-Rose!
When Sylvain decides to hang it up and call it a great career, what he hopes to do with his family is travel. "I like Costa Rica, the wildlife there is pretty amazing. I'd like to go to Europe. I was there once to train a horse and that was at 9/11." Sylvain went to France to work with and train a horse he was set to drive in a big trotting race in Montreal, the Trot Montreal. "They invited horses from all over the world to race in Montreal." Sylvain explains. "I was a little anxious to come back because I was stuck there for an extra five days."
Sylvain was telling me about how much fun the drivers have amongst themselves. Once they're in the bike and on the track, it's strictly business and game on, "Here at Woodbine we take our jobs very seriously. Once we are out there on the track we are all professionals and may the best horse win." However between drives and/or races, the horsemen really know how to keep the atmosphere light.
"There are jokes amongst the drivers" Sylvain says. "We spend so much time together. Especially in the summer when we are driving five or six nights a week, we get to the Paddock for 6:30pm and we are there until 11:30pm. So we have to find a way to have a bit of fun and enjoy ourselves."
Some examples of jokes played on one another; a driver, who has a couple of races off, may grab a pair of gloves from another driver and tie knots in the fingers of those gloves. So when the owner of those gloves grabs them to head out, that driver has to go out without any gloves on or has to rush and get a pair from a trainer.
For fun, sometimes baby powder is put into the helmet of an unsuspecting driver. As you may guess, when the helmet goes on, that drivers' entire head and face is covered. Another prank is putting shoe polish around the goggles of another driver where that said driver is left with rings of polish around his eyes for the rest of the night. They must be tearing up with laughter at times!
Sylvain admits, one prank that happened to him is when someone tied his shoe laces "into 2000 knots so I had to cut out all the laces before I left to go home after the races." Priceless!
Sometimes they tease one another, "You have to be able to laugh at yourself" says Sylvain. "You have to remain humble. When a guy is parked out the whole mile and he comes in last, he's asked if 'he's caught a cold out there?'...we are a tough group, but a fun group."
By Roderick Balgobin, for Supernova Sports Club www.supernovasportsclub.com Twitter: ScSupernova