Solving the puzzle of finding new harness racing fans

by Trey Nosrac

I walked into Nasty Habits Bar and Grill on Sunday morning at 8:45 and saw Linda Roberts standing near the dartboard. I strolled over and handed her an envelope containing $85 in cash.

She resembles Stevie Nicks, circa age 50, but allows grey to pepper her hair and only uses a touch of makeup around her eyes. Linda pinched the envelope between her thumb and index finger, smiled, and said, “Chin up, Trey, it wasn’t a total failure. The horse raced a few times, just not fast enough.”

“Nah, it’s not that our horse wasn’t a star or I lost money. Heck, I’m used to that. My problem is that, once again, I failed to spark any interest in the sport. Not one of you showed the faintest interest in harness racing.”

She gave a sympathetic tilt of her head, “Well, at least you tried. You took us on a free ride,” she said waving the envelope. “More than free, you gave us some of the money your horse earned. At least you know that losing money wasn’t why we didn’t catch your harness-racing fever.”

I spread my hands, “Then what was it? I set up a no-lose proposition. I thought you people would bond into a cult and use me as your guru.”

“Sorry.” She hesitated, then said, “Want some suggestions from the point of view of a failed test subject?”

“Suggest away.”

“I was one of the six people you selected for the horse group, but we were strangers. We were email addresses and people on a text thread. I never felt like part of a group. My time as a pseudo-racehorse owner felt more like an online class. I never got emotionally involved.”

“Emotionally involved?”

She pointed at a group of people milling around the back room of Nasty Habits Bar and Grill, “Maybe you should use the PJP as your model. We are counterculture, but we have been growing. I’m getting a coffee. Want one?”

“Sure.” We headed to the coffee table.

PJP is an acronym for our club, the Pelham Jigsaw Puzzlers. We meet at 9:00 a.m. on the third Saturday of each month except December. Settling on the time and place for our sessions took some trial and error. At first, in each other’s homes on Monday evenings, then on Sunday mornings, and finally settled on Saturday morning at Nasty Habits, a bar at the far end of a struggling strip mall.

Benny, the Edgeman, brings a Keurig for coffee, and the rest of us take turns bringing breakfast sandwiches or pastries. Nasty Habits isn’t open on Saturday mornings, so we pay the owners $50 to use the room. It’s free money for the owners, and since we are not exactly a biker gang, we leave the place cleaner than when we arrived.

What does a jigsaw puzzle club do?

We have fun, and we compete. Today we are playing a solo session. Other times, we have partner events, and twice each year, we puzzle in groups of four against the clock and see how we compare timewise against puzzlers from all over the world.

This morning, nine of us will take identical 500-piece puzzles from a cardboard carton, each box sealed and shaken. Today’s puzzle is of a Paris street scene where a couple shares a bottle of red wine under an umbrella table. We are waiting for the signal to begin. At the command, we open our boxes and begin. In solo events, there is not much talking. In multi-player events, there is plenty of talking.

Now you may believe puzzling is a stupid waste of time. Guess what? New people peeking at harness racing believe the same thing. Only when you look behind the curtains can visitors begin to see the benefits and the charms of our various preoccupations and hobbies.

We occasionally get visitors to the PJP club and some return. A few visitors have organized puzzle clubs of their own. Participation in puzzling is not a stampede, but there is growth. My theory is that a jigsaw puzzle is so far removed from today’s technology that more and more people find our puzzle niche is a peaceful oasis from technology. We have a rule that players silence their devices or leave them in their cars. Unlinking from the world is surprisingly tricky the first few times, but not impossible. It’s refreshing to put down the phone for a few hours.

As Linda stirred cream into her coffee mug, she said, “Trey, I see big differences between the puzzlers and your harness racing recruitment effort. We are a social group. We meet in person at least once a month, and we chat and text all the time. In puzzling, there is no big gap between the participation ability. And puzzling is less expensive.”

I shook a finger, “That puzzle cruise last year was a big-ticket item.”

“It was a blast and worth every penny. But getting back to your horse problem, I believe you would have had more success if your recruits interacted daily.”


“My office has about 10 people at the insurance company where I work. If you had selected your group from those office workers, you would have had more luck. We see each other every day and would be more likely to interact.”

I nodded, “Not a bad idea. Anymore?”

She shook her head, “Not really. Finding new harness racing members seems like one of those 2,000-piece puzzles where the pieces are all purple.”

I scanned the room and watched Pelham Jigsaw Puzzlers laughing and chatting. I snapped my fingers.

Linda smiled at me briefly and said, “I know what you’re thinking.”

I raised my hands in victory, “I already have a name for the horse, “The Final Piece.”

She laughed and added, “Or maybe Jigsaw Jogger or Pelham Pacer?”

Bennie gave the signal to grab our boxes. A Café table in Paris awaited.