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Filion Returns to Racing in the Shadow of Scandal

July 07, 2002|RANDALL CHASE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRINGTON, Del. — Harness racing great Herve Filion took a drag on his cigarette and leaned against the metal bleachers at Harrington Raceway.

"My conscience is clear," said the Hall of Famer, back at the track after a hiatus of seven years stemming from charges of race-fixing. "I didn't do anything wrong on the racetrack."

At 62, when many people are easing into retirement, Filion is making a fresh start, two years after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in return for the dismissal of more serious charges that rocked the racing world in 1995 and led to his exile.

Suiting up his in red, white and blue colors, he picked up where he left off, winning three races June 23 at Harrington.

"I was very relaxed, comfortable, just like I never left," said Filion, who picked up his 14,787th career victory Monday, inching closer to his goal of 15,000. "It feels good. It feels very, very good."

Between races, Filion, who has about 4,000 more victories than any other driver or jockey in the country, caught up with old friends, shook a lot of hands and signed an autograph for a boy in a wheelchair.

"It's the greatest thing that's happened to harness," said trainer Augustus Schumatti. "He's what harness racing is all about. When he wasn't here, people missed him."

On June 18, Delaware racing officials granted a license allowing Filion to resume a career that began when Dwight Eisenhower was president.

"Delaware gave me an opening," said Filion, who also has obtained a conditional license in Pennsylvania and hopes to win approval in Florida and Massachusetts as well. He is mulling a trip to Europe, where his return has generated interest.

New York is another matter. Filion applied for a license last year with the New York State Racing and Wagering Board and was denied.

"It was found that his character and fitness were not in the best interest of racing," said board spokeswoman Stacy Clifford. A hearing on Filion's appeal is scheduled for July 17.

Clifford said officials in Delaware and Pennsylvania contacted New York authorities before issuing licenses to Filion, who acknowledges there is a cloud hanging over him but only wants to concentrate on racing.

"I'm not better than the next driver, but I'm as good," said Filion, a 10-time Harness Tracks of America driver of the year. "Just give me the horse ... and I'll take him to the wire."

John Wayne, administrator for the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, said Filion should be considered innocent unless proven guilty, something New York prosecutors couldn't prove.

"We thought that under those circumstances, the man should be given an opportunity to continue his career," Wayne said.

"He is to harness racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Dale Earnhardt to NASCAR," said Jack Walls, Harrington Raceway president and chief executive officer. "It affords people at our track the opportunity to see one of the greatest of all time."

Eddie Edwards, a Wilmington horse owner, said it was only right for Delaware to offer Filion a second chance.

"He came to Harrington and Dover when some of the other big drivers wouldn't," Edwards said. "He's done good for Delaware."

In 1995, Filion and fellow drivers Frederick Grant and David Ingraham were accused of grand larceny and conspiracy for allegedly fixing races at Yonkers Raceway. The charges were dismissed in 2000 when the three drivers acknowledged they failed to file state tax returns in 1996.

A fourth driver, Darron Ryder, pleaded guilty in 1996 to a charge of tampering with a sports contest.

Bookmaker Daniel Kramer, alleged to be the mastermind, pleaded guilty to gambling-related charges in 1996 and agreed to a $2 million settlement with the New York attorney general's office.

In 1998, prosecutors were dealt a blow in their effort to prosecute others in the case when New York's highest court questioned the admissibility of evidence from electronic devices used to monitor Kramer's telephone.

Prosecutors alleged Filion conspired to fix five races at Yonkers in 1995 as a way of repaying a $6,000 loan from Kramer. Filion denies the allegations and said he simply got caught up in the investigation of Kramer.

"I got indicted because I spoke to him on the phone," Filion said. "One race, he asked me if I thought I could finish third. I said 'I don't see why not.' ... Sure enough, I did finish third, but I got placed second."

Filion said he wanted a trial to clear his name. He said he pleaded guilty to the tax charge, which netted him a $90 fine and one year of probation, on advice of his lawyer.

"I think he deserves a chance," said Salvatore DiMario, executive director of the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association. "You took a man's livelihood away from him for six and a half years without proving he did anything wrong."

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