PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS : Rags-to-Riches Game Inventors See Nothing Trivial About Horses

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Times Staff Writer

It has been almost 10 years since a rainy-day idea for a board game turned into Trivial Pursuit. The game has sold about 76 million copies and is available in 22 languages in 32 countries. Of the family and friends who originally invested in the phenomenon, several have become millionaires, including Scott Abbott, a wire-service copyboy from Montreal who borrowed a few thousand dollars from his mother to participate, and John Haney.

And what are Abbott and Haney doing with their money? Let them count the ways. Not long ago they built a lavish golf course that was immediately the talk of Toronto, and four years back they began investing in horses. Their more recent pursuits are not trivial, and seem endless.

“These are two lucky guys,” said an envious trainer at Woodbine, Toronto’s major race track. “They were lucky in racing right away, too.”


Not really. “The first horse we bought cost $50,000,” Haney said. “His name was Gay Monarch, and he suffered a bone chip and didn’t amount to anything.”

Since then, however, the horses have been running better for Abbott, who once wrote sports for a Montreal wire service, and Haney, a frustrated writer and actor and for two weeks a hockey goaltender in the training camp of the Kings. They changed trainers, sending their horses to Grant Pearce, a fledgling horseman, and by Abbott’s count they have won seven stakes races in the last three years.

The star of the stable, a 3-year-old colt named Charlie Barley, gave them one of their biggest racing thrills when he missed winning the Molson Export Million by a half-length at Woodbine recently. Charlie Barley, a $50,000 yearling purchase, was already a multiple stakes winner and had earned $350,000 before the Molson race. For finishing second to Prized, he earned $200,000. In 1984, when Trivial Pursuit sales approached $700 million, the board game theoretically brought in about $200,000 every 2 1/2 hours.

“We fancy ourselves as Irish horse thieves,” said Haney, who was born in England and reared in Canada. He had wanted to grow up become another Gordie Howe, but instead became a hockey bum--playing in Denmark and Austria after the Kings farmed him out to Denver in 1971 and he didn’t report.

Along the way, Haney, 43, managed a bookstore, tried free-lance writing and ran a theater that produced works by George Bernard Shaw.

Abbott, 40, is stocky, and Haney is tall and still reasonably trim, and while they physically could pass for Abbott and Costello, their material more resembles Bob and Ray. Together for an interview, they puckishly play off each other, which might be their best game of all, and only insiders can separate the facts from the falderal.


“John got us interested in horses after he met Albert Finney in Barbados,” Abbott said.

“Yes, Albert Finney, the actor,” Haney said. “His father was a bookmaker in England, you know.”

“Yes, Albert Finney,” Abbott said. “A good guy, was he, John?”

“Don’t know about that, but he could drink a lot of red wine,” Haney said.

Trivial Pursuit actually started after Haney’s younger brother, Chris, a photo editor who worked with Abbott, came home from grocery shopping one day and suggested a game of Scrabble.

“Dec. 15, 1979, that’s a day I’ll never forget,” Abbott said.

They were always losing the board, and after an argument, Chris Haney went out and bought another one. That led to a conversation about how lucrative games were, especially if you’ve purchased your sixth Scrabble board, and in 45 minutes Abbott and Haney put together the basic principles of Trivial Pursuit.

But none of the major game manufacturers were interested, primarily because they thought each copy would be too expensive to produce. So Abbott and the two Haneys pooled their resources (Abbott’s father put up $40,000.) More than 30 shareholders combined at $200 a share, and the group was able to obtain a credit line of $75,000 from a bank.

Abbott and the Haneys began writing the questions. “We came up with something like 40,000 or 50,000,” Abbott said. “By then, everything we saw looked like a question mark.”

The game was a hit on the test market, but the group lacked money to produce more copies. “For a while, we were the victims of our own success,” Abbott said.


In 1982, Selchow & Righter, which had been selling Scrabble for almost 30 years, bought the rights to sell Trivial Pursuit in the United States. The spinoffs and copies of the game have proliferated. There’s even a television game show in the Soviet Union that’s based on Trivial Pursuit.

The originators can afford to hire writers to think up questions now, but during those early competitive times, Abbott remembers how the Baby Boomer version of Trivial Pursuit was launched.

“We rented a motel room across the street from Woodbine race track to work in,” he said. “The place isn’t even there anymore. We figured that it was a great location--we’d spend part of the day thinking up questions, then we’d spend the rest of the time playing the horses. But we got busy and it never happened. We were there three years, and didn’t cross the street once.”

Abbott and John Haney have been to horse auctions in Kentucky, where they have been paying between $50,000 and $100,000 for stock. At Woodbine, they won the 1987 Victoria Stakes for 2-year-olds with Dapple Dancer. It was the first time they had run a horse in a stake and only their second victory overall.

They now have 10 horses in training, headed by Charlie Barley, a son of Affirmed out of Au Printempts, the same dam who produced Success Express, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in 1987. Had Charlie Barley been offered for sale after Success Express’ victory, he probably would have cost considerably more than $50,000.

“When Dapple Dancer won that first stake, we didn’t have any idea how difficult it was to get a horse who could win a stake,” Abbott said. “Then to win three more stakes that year, it seemed to be getting kind of ridiculous.”


Both Abbott and Haney have established a goal. “We’re in racing to run horses, not breed them,” Haney said. “We’d like to win the Queen’s Plate.”

That’s a Woodbine race that was first run in 1860. The creators of Trivial Pursuit are obviously thinking big. Although they can afford to lose, racing is no game to them.