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Freehold, NJ --- Five years ago when Dave Palone became the leading driver in career wins in North American harness racing history, he looked to the man he surpassed with respect and awe.

“When I was a kid,” Palone said, “Herve was my idol. In soccer, there’s Pele. In harness racing, there’s Herve. When you say ‘Herve’ everyone knows who that is.

“I don’t think I could ever replace Herve as the legend that he is.”

Herve Filion, a Hall of Famer in the U.S. and Canada who retired in 2013 with 15,179 career wins, passed away Thursday at the age of 77. Filion, a native of Quebec, was North America’s leading driver in wins 16 times, earning his first title in 1968 and final crown in 1990.

The Filion family at midday Thursday posted on Facebook: “God saw you getting tired and a cure not meant to be. So he put his arms around you and whispered ‘come to me.’ Our dad, Herve Filion, crossed the finish line like the champion he is and became our angel today.

“A true champion he will always be -- doctors have told us this is one for the books for sure! We appreciate all the well wishes and the memories that have been shared these past few weeks. We thank you for giving us our privacy during this heartbreaking time.”

Filion first came to the U.S. in 1961. At 21 he was racing at Vernon Downs before migrating to the Delaware Valley circuit, where he rewrote the books at both Brandywine and Liberty Bell while also establishing himself as a power at Freehold. When Filion left to go to New York in 1970, he became a fulltime doubleheader driver, racing at Freehold in the afternoon and the metropolitan New York tracks at night.

A teenage Palone watched in 1979 when Filion drove Hot Hitter to victory in the Adios at Palone’s hometown track, The Meadows in western Pennsylvania. When he was in his 20s, Palone got to meet his idol while participating in a driving competition at Freehold.

“He was just like people always said he was, bubbly and positive,” Palone said today. “He treated me just like he treated all the other drivers and it meant a lot to me. He told me, ‘All you need is power, kid.’ That’s what he would always tell me. I’ll just always remember the way he treated me. He always had a smile on his face.”

Filion’s roots in racing traced back to his childhood in Angers, Quebec, a remote farming community.

“We had work horses and road horses because we didn’t have a car,” he once said. “In those days my father would do anything to make a buck, to raise 10 kids -- eight boys and two girls. My father started racing as a hobby in 1949. I raced for the first time when I was 12, and finished second. At 13, I won my first race, with Guy Grattan, at Rigaud, Quebec.”

Record numbers of wins followed.

In 1968, Filion became the first driver to surpass 400 wins in a year, recording 407 victories en route to his first North American title. He continued to raise the bar from there, with 486 wins in 1970, then 543 in 1971, 605 in 1972 and 637 in 1974. When Mike Lachance broke Filion’s record with 770 wins in 1986, Filion reclaimed the mark with 798 triumphs in 1988. He pushed the record to 814 wins a year later.

“He was one of the greatest drivers our sport has ever had,” Palone said. “No one was smoother with a horse. I think horses felt that and responded to him. He could keep a horse going forever.”

Palone became the winningest driver in North American harness racing history on July 5, 2012 at The Meadows. Filion was in attendance.

“Having him there meant so much to me,” Palone said. “He was so supportive and so encouraging when I was getting near the record. He kept telling me I was going to do it. I thought it was cool to have him in my corner. He hugged me when I broke the record and I could feel he was as happy for me as I was.

“To this day it doesn’t seem right to me that I have the record. There’s only one Herve.”

In addition to his years as the sport’s leading driver in wins, Filion topped the purse standings seven times. He finished his career with $88.4 million in earnings.

Top horses driven by Filion included Grades Singing, who won the 1986 Maple Leaf Trot, American Trotting Championship and Breeders Crown Mare Trot with Filion in the sulky. Filion was a two-time winner of the Little Brown Jug, with Nansemond in 1971 and Hot Hitter in 1979, and enjoyed multiple stakes victories with millionaire Dorunrun Bluegrass. In addition to winning a Breeders Crown with Grades Singing, he won a trophy with Caressable in 1985.

Filion, who won the inaugural World Driving Championship in 1970, was the youngest person ever elected to harness racing’s Living Hall of Fame, when he was inducted at the age of 35 in 1975. (John Campbell was also inducted at age 35 in 1990.) In 1976, Filion became the youngest driver inducted into Canada's Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Other awards for Filion included the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s leading professional athlete; the Hickok Professional Athlete of the Month Award (the only individual in harness racing ever so honored); and the 1973 Proximity Award.

“This is a sad day for harness racing,” Palone said. “There will never be another one like him.”

 - By Ken Weingartner, Harness Racing Communications