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Russ Gardiner is a retired advertising executive who now serves as a volunteer extraordinaire with Sonoma State University -- an assistant golf coach at the moment -- and he has the latter's sun-reddened face and the former's habit of talking like a press release. Fifty-one years old with graying hair and a tireless cell phone holstered at his hip, Gardiner is a lifelong dabbler: He was a legislative aide to Gov. Ronald Reagan, a hospital administrator, and an adman; toward the end of his career, he joined the board of San Francisco's college football bowl game, helped coach a high school basketball team, and carried a clipboard for Sonoma State's hoops team. Then, a year ago, in maybe his riskiest and most curious venture yet, Gardiner bought two racehorses, and eventually a third, to run under the banner of a new stable, Seawolf Stables, which is how, on an arid Saturday in August at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, two long shots of a different sort came to be standing in the shade of a barn, one of them cooing encouragement into the other's ear.
"You're gonna do good today," Gardiner is saying to his gelding, Irish Dodger. "Ten horses! You've never run with 10 horses!"
Irish Dodger, son of Helmsman, purchased for $25,000, is running with the 2-year-olds in the 10th race today, a 12-to-1 long shot in the program, 25-to-1 by post time. It's his first race -- and Gardiner's first as an owner -- and of the two, only the horse seems calm here, blinking lazily as Gardiner talks sweetly at his side. Later, Irish Dodger's trainer, Alan Sherman, will point out that this isn't unusual for a maiden racehorse. Irish has no idea what he's in for, that in just a few hours he will be shot from a gate with nine other thoroughbreds and whipped around 5 1/2 furlongs of hot Santa Rosa dirt. Right now, he's thinking this is just another afternoon chewing hay. Next time, Sherman says, Irish won't be so sanguine.
Turning away from Irish now, Gardiner drops his voice to a whisper, lest his horse hear. "The chances of us winning this race are not good," he says, shaking his head. "First-time horses typically do not win." He returns to Irish and raises his voice. "But you're gonna give your best," he says. "You're gonna give your best."
If Gardiner seems nervous, it might be because he knows the stakes. This is a special horse, after all -- a 2-year-old racing for more than just the purse, his stable, his owners, the families eating corn dogs in the grandstand, and the guy pocketing his betting slip inside. He's also racing, weirdly enough, for higher education.
Gardiner smiles at Irish. "You can run the race of your life, right?"
Sonoma State University is a school of about 8,000 students located at the foot of the Sonoma hills in Rohnert Park, an hour north of San Francisco. It is 250 acres of trees and tanned students and bright new buildings with the sun on their roofs. Sports seem to have a heavy presence. On a recent weekday afternoon, there are swimmers in the outdoor pool, basketball players in the gym, softball players in the batting cage, soccer players on the pitch -- and in the building across the street, leaning against the wall in the athletic director's boxy office and taking up a good amount of space, there is a cartoonishly large check. It's made out to Sonoma State athletics, signed by Russ Gardiner, for the sum of $100,000.
This check means a lot of things, not just to the school, but to the Sonoma community and to any small college that has ever tiptoed atop an anemic bottom line. Foremost, it means that, thanks to a neat trick of fund-raising, Sonoma State's 13 athletic offerings won't slip from the NCAA's Division II to the purgatory of Division III, which is the difference between football and two-hand touch. It means the school won't have to fly a team of nonscholarship athletes across two states for, say, a track meet. It means a "new group of friends for the university," according to Sonoma State's vice president for development, and for those people it means a back door into a sport dominated by sheiks and blue bloods. And most of all it means that a tiny school's athletic department, however hamstrung by budget cuts, can become something of a national model merely by being clever. "It was," Gardiner says, "a perfect solution to a pretty imposing problem."
The solution, a horse-racing syndicate, is unique, but the problem was, and remains, near universal in small-time college sports: money. In 2003, the members of the NCAA's Division II elected to raise to $250,000 the minimum amount a school had to spend each year in scholarship money. The rule, which will go into effect next year, was designed to restrict movement into the division from Division III and from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for about 350 small-college athletics programs. (The primary difference between the top two divisions is the minimum number of sports a school must sponsor: seven for men and seven for women in Division I; five and five in Division II. Division III schools -- few and far between on the West Coast -- don't offer athletic scholarships.) "You need to realize," says Robert Hiegert, commissioner of the California Collegiate Athletic Association, of which Sonoma State is a member, "that the economy of the state and the nation three years ago was a heck of a lot better than it is now. If you were anticipating enrollments going up, anticipating having more resources, this was much more easily attainable than it is now."