In just three years the Breeders' Cup has become a thoroughbred-racing jewel (SI, Nov. 10). In the same three years the Breeders Crown, harness racing's answer to the Cup, has become a modest success but has failed to resuscitate a sagging sport. The culmination of the 1986 Crown series, a four-stakes card staged last month at New Jersey's Garden State Park, offered a glittering $2,375,900 in purses, but circumstances made it a bittersweet affair.
The Crown cannot escape the malaise that pervades all of harness racing. The decline in trotting and pacing, which started more than a decade ago, is blamed in part on the sport's continuing image problems. Once a staple at county fairs, trotting and pacing have always seemed the unsophisticated cousins of thoroughbred racing, and doubts about its integrity were widespread even during its heyday in the 1940s and '50s. According to an industry report, 30% of today's harness fans still question whether the sport is on the level. To change this perception, racetracks have tightened security and the North American Harness Racing Marketing Association has been established to promote a new image. But there has been no perceptible payoff. Since 1980 on-track attendance nationwide is off nearly 20%.
Another reason for the slump is increased competition for the gambler's bet. In the New York City area, where harness racing was once immensely popular, off-track betting, two daily state lotteries and legalized gambling in Atlantic City have all sprung up since 1970. In that period patronage at harness meets has fallen 70%.
Scrambling for new ideas, the lords of harness racing came up with, among other things, the Breeders Crown. Whereas the Breeders' Cup runs all its stakes on one date, the Crown is a 12-race, $5.1 million series spread out over four months. Last year the 10 tracks that hosted Crown events reported increases of 52.7% in attendance and 46.1% in handle. This year the first eight stakes, held at tracks across the U.S. and Canada between August and November, again drew larger than average crowds. And the final four races not only attracted 21,326 fans, a record at Garden State for harness racing, but also attracted a rare live TV audience through a deal with ESPN.
But it was only a momentary triumph. Harness racing fared so poorly at Garden State Park generally that management announced recently that the sport has been discontinued for 1987.
As people around the country see the snow fall and dream happily of a white Christmas, the Head Nut sits at home and broods. "This is the toughest time of the year for me," he says. "When the golf courses are closed, I'm miserable."
At least the weather allows the Head Nut an opportunity to answer the mail, which has piled up since July, when he formed the Golf Nut Society of America. From his home—Nut House, in Brush Prairie, Wash., in emulation of the USGA's Golf House, in Far Hills, N.J.—the Head Nut processes membership applications and mails certificates and bag tags to new members. On one side of the tag is printed the society's motto, THE LUNATIC FRINGE OF GOLF, and on the other is a personal registration number under the words "If you're not registered, how can you be committed?"
"I watch golfers on TV and whenever I'm playing in a tournament," says the HN, a scratch golfer who plays in dozens of amateur events each year. "If I see someone who seems nuts about golf, or does something nutty, I write a letter asking if he'd like to join. We're just getting started—we've got about a hundred members." Perhaps the most famous Nut is Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, whose passion for the game prompted the HN to send him the standard GNSA entrance exam. Test questions ask how many times you've played in snow, whether you played on your wedding anniversary, how many golf-related divorces you've suffered, how many times you've "quit the game forever." Jordan passed, sent in his entry fee and has risen to the GNSA's directorate.
The Head Nut, who is a 39-year-old computer salesman named Ron Garland, has nearly qualified for the U.S. Amateur several times, currently is the Oregon state amateur champion, once shot 66 during a tornado and has a happy marriage. "I used to go out for putting practice at night," he says, "and my wife would stay in the car and shine the headlights on the green. She's definitely a Nut herself."