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Commentaries

Filion’s passing a reminder of old times and changing times in sports gambling

By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Herve Filion was a sports star with few peers. The fact most fans can’t place his name is a reminder that not everyone appreciates the nuanced grace of harness racing.

Not surprisingly, many sports pages neglected to give his recent passing at age 77 the play it deserved. His career, its controversies and accomplishments, were largely reduced to footnotes.

But The New York Times remembered. Slight of frame, Filion was a giant in his sport. His stature was so great, in fact, that his bylined obituary in the Times drew comparisons between his 15,179 career wins and Sam Snead’s 82 golf tournament victories, Cy Young’s 511 pitching wins, and Jimmy Connors’ 1,256 singles tennis triumphs.

That’s good company.

Just imagine how many races Filion might have won if he hadn’t become entangled in a race-fixing and illegal betting scandal. It resulted in no conviction, but cost him a seven-year suspension from the sport he thoroughly dominated. Filion was one of several harness drivers caught up in a federal investigation into the shadowy but fascinating world of Danny Kramer and his Kosher Boys betting crew. Filion was among several drivers charged with aiding Kramer’s crew by participating in race fixes at Yonkers Raceway.

Like all sports betting scandals of any real stature, the Kosher Boys’ action reverberated through the Las Vegas sports book industry in the mid-1990s. Between race fixing allegations and his own connections to the New York underworld, including factions of the Genovese and Bonanno crime families, Kramer had the FBI’s full attention.

The fact harness racing’s history wasn’t exactly pristine before the Kramer scandal was beside the point. Wiretaps revealed Kramer’s network, including some longtime layoff associates in the Las Vegas sports betting industry. The Kosher Boys, as they were commonly known, and the Computer Group were two of the best known sports betting groups in the mid-1990s. Both drew withering scrutiny from the FBI and Nevada gaming regulators. Their cases led to a push by state gaming regulators to outlaw messenger betting.

At the time, law enforcement gathered evidence showing Kramer’s crew bet as much as $400,000 per day and laid off its wagers using, as the Times put it in 1995, “an extensive network of bookmakers and runners as well as using harness drivers like Filion to occasionally fix races.” The network was based in New York but included outposts in the Caribbean and Las Vegas.

Kramer was more than a gambler. He all but grew up at New York tracks, and, by the time of the Yonkers scandal, was also a successful horse owner. He appeared to have the game wired. Filion wound up paying a high price.

After seven years spent on the edge of the sport he once dominated, Filion returned to the sulky in 2002 and raced another decade. Although his records for wins in a season and career have been eclipsed, Filion ended his career with nearly $90 million in winnings.

Kramer had been on the governments radar for years prior to the Yonkers scandal. In 1985 he was suspended from the sport after being indicted for an alleged role in an illegal gambling ring. Those charges were later dismissed, and he didn’t miss a beat.

Kramer didn’t take it as a sign that he might have been considered a person of interest. Men who live for the action rarely do. He increased his play and deepened his connections to the sport and the bookmaking fraternity. He became a highly successful commodities broker, proving his versatility on their side of the law.

He once bragged to an interviewer, “Why shouldn’t bookmaking and betting be an honorable profession? In my dealings in the world, the people I tend to have trouble with are the suits and ties to whom a handshake doesn’t mean a thing. It’s not that way with gamblers.”

If that sounds just a little like the world view of another highly successful and highly controversial sports gambler, Bill Walters, maybe it should. The two men couldn’t be from more different backgrounds, but when it comes to their eye for the action they seem very much the same.

Although the charges against Filion were eventually dismissed, he never fully recovered from his association with Kramer.

With a warm embrace in the White House, it appears that legalized sports betting outside Nevada might actually become a reality at last. I wonder whether Kramer and Walters and others in their trade find a certain irony in that.

It’a hard to imagine it would have given Herve Filion much comfort.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.