By Beverley Smith for woodbine.com
TORONTO, June 18 – Sylvain Filion is many things: four-time Canadian standardbred driver of the year, world driving champion, nephew of the incomparable superstar Herve Filion, and all-around bon vivant from Quebec.
But he says his greatest achievement has been to become a father.
You’d think it would have been hard enough to have become the second-most familiar member of the expansive Filion family (at last count, 25 Filions were registered to drive in North America), drive in more than 46,000 races around the planet, win more than 8,400 of them, finesse his way to victory in the 2014 Maple Leaf Trot with 80-1 shot Intimidate, get to the wire first in the 2013 Metro Pace with a horse with a heavyweight name, Boomboom Ballykeel, and break his driving teeth as a youngster by winning a baby race with the future North America Cup champion Runnymede Lobell.
But becoming a father was much harder for Filion. He and life partner Dominic Pare had to work hard at it. Very hard.
“We had been trying to have kids for a long time,” said Filion, 48.
He’s been with Pare for at least 25 years. They are from the same town in Quebec. They went to school together in Lachute, a paper mill and lumber town of about 12,000 people. But parenthood never worked out for the two of them.
“We kind of half gave up on having kids,” Filion said.
The last alternative was to adopt a child. Easier said than done.
“It’s a very long process,” Filion said. “We had to do a lot of studying and research.” For three weekends in a row, (both Saturday and Sunday), they navigated traffic to get to downtown Toronto to take classes on adoption. “It’s not as easy as people think,” he said.
From the time they started their search to the day they met a 3-month old girl from Timmins that they would later call Stella Rose, it took two years of hard work. “It’s like you have to sell yourself,” Filion said. “You have to put out a profile. And it’s the parents that choose you. That’s the way it goes now. Luckily, we found someone to choose us.”
First, they had to meet the parents in Timmins. For the first time, they saw the child. “We approached her and she was in a cradle,” Filion said. “She looked at us and she smiled. Oh my god. She had us at the get-go. It was an amazing day for us.”
Stella Rose turned four years old on April 9. She’s a smiley little muffin, with laughing eyes and curls tumbled atop her head. She won hearts last August at the induction ceremonies for the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in Mississauga, Ont., when her grandfather, Yves, entered the Hall, following his brother, Herve, who was inducted 40 years earlier.
Yves is the youngest of eight Fillion brothers. He quietly found his spot in the Hall on the strength of guiding his Runnymede Lobell to win the 1988 North America Cup (Teen-aged Sylvain was listed as trainer), and driving his homebred Goliath Bayama, known as the Montreal Monster that defeated Gallo Blue Chip in a Breeders’ Crown for older pacers one year. Goliath also finished second to The Panderosa in the 1998 North America Cup.
Stella Rose had been playing with some of her toys in a corner in the banquet hall, amusing herself amidst the glitz. Yves couldn’t help himself; he joined her, just before he was to go on stage. But then, he had to leave. And Sylvain was to present the trophy to his father. Both went up on stage.
While Yves was giving his acceptance speech, Stella Rose knew where she must be: at his side. “When she saw Pappy up on stage, she went up on the stage to join him,” Sylvain said. “It wasn’t planned.” Yves couldn’t help but smile.
Having Stella Rose in their hearts and minds and living rooms and car seats has been “life changing,” Filion said. He’s a different person today because of Stella Rose, he said.
“My business is a tough business,” Filion said. “People don’t realize how many hours we put in. With the arrival of Stella Rose, I promised myself to be there for her, even if it means to cut down on work a bit, for whatever reason.
“So far, I’ve got to admit, things are pretty good,” he said with a smile. “I was able to arrange my schedule so that I could be home pretty much every night. I’m pretty proud of that. “
For a guy who drives mainly at night, it means he takes fewer road trips and overnight stays. He doesn’t mind.
“I enjoy her presence and she makes me feel so good,” Filion said. “She brought so many good things to me. She’s made me a better person.”
Without children, he and Dominic had a different lifestyle. They could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. But with Stella Rose in the picture “It pretty much grounded us and made us realize how fortunate we are,” Filion said.
“And she made us realize that we had quite a bit of success,” he said. “And maybe we didn’t realize it.” They take things less for granted now.
And she made us realize that we had quite a bit of success and maybe we didn`t realize it.
Currently, Stella Rose is attending a French immersion school in Milton, Ont., three days a week. Filion drops her off every day. But in September, she will become a full-time student. “That will be different,” Fillion said, obviously dreading it.
As focused as the members of the Filion family were on racing and working, they always returned home to Angers, Que., for family functions, especially for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Even Herve, a workaholic extraordinaire, paused to come home for holidays.
“Christmas and New Year’s was very important for the Filion family,” he said. “We all got together and celebrated, even if everybody was far apart. They found a way to get together.”
While Yves is now 71, and Herve 77, the younger members of the Filion family – now including Stella Rose – are filling in the blanks and sticking together. Sylvain’s brother, Justin just bought a farm in Quebec recently in Richmond, Que. He and his girlfriend have 15 horses together with broodmares and foals and yearlings.
His sister, Julie, is the youngest of this family, and has a daughter, Amy. Sylvain is “the proud godfather.” Julie instated him before he adopted Stella Rose.
Last winter, they all went together for a Disney cruise in Orlando, Fla. “We had a ball there,” Filion said. “A great time.”
For Sylvain Filion, it feels like Father’s Day every day.