One day at Belmont Park this summer some fellow horseplayers suggested that we go to Yonkers that evening to see the Cane Pace. Even though I am not a harness racing aficionado, I knew the Cane is one of the sport's most famous events, part of the Triple Crown of pacing.

I asked my friends if we should try to get a table in the dining room, and suggested that we might want to leave a couple hours early to beat the traffic jams. They looked at me with disbelief and laughed: Where had I been for the last 15 years while harness racing was dying?

Of course, they were right. Ten minutes before post time, we pulled in front of Yonkers with no difficulty and joined the meager crowd of 8,600 watching this famous race. And that was a big turnout by the current standards of harness racing in New York. Yonkers' average attendance for all of 1986 was 4,200 -- less than one-fourth of what it was 15 years earlier.

Harness racing in New York has a unique set of problems because it has been so badly hurt by off-track betting, but the decline of the sport's popularity is a widespread phenomenon.

Garden State Park's harness meeting was such a disaster that it helped drive the track to the brink of bankruptcy. Liberty Bell in Philadelphia has shut down and Brandywine outside Wilmington, Del., is on the verge of extinction. The sport's popularity also has declined in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Although there are a few remaining pockets of prosperity -- the Meadowlands and the Maryland circuit -- the overall trend is moving downward.

In 1975, the total attendance at U.S. harness tracks was 28,089,984. In 1986, attendance had plunged to 18,397,142.

"There's no way you can look at the figures without being concerned," said Tom Aronson of the American Horse Council.

What makes this trend so disturbing, and so mystifying, is that the harness industry isn't doing anything noticeably wrong.

Whenever leaders of the thoroughbred industry get together to pontificate about ways to lure fans, they invariably conclude that higher-quality racing attracts better business. They also agree that it is important to market and promote the sport, and to offer customers good facilities and good treatment.

By and large, harness racing has done all these things. The standardbred industry has been breeding faster and faster horses, year after year. Exciting new stars appear every season. As far as the quality of competition is concerned, this is the golden age of harness racing.

Moreover, harness tracks have traditionally treated their customers well. Yonkers, even in its period of decline, is an extremely attractive, comfortable facility. Garden State is palatial. Rosecroft was, for years, a more pleasant place to go to the races than the Maryland thoroughbred tracks.

So what's wrong?

Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of the Harness Tracks of America and one of the industry's most prominent spokesmen, places part of the blame on television.

"People form impressions of things by what they see on television," Bergstein said. "They don't see much racing and certainly not much harness racing. The decline of racing parallels the rise of television."

Bergstein offers another theory which sounds more plausible. "One of the problems is the life style in this country. Harness racing is a nighttime sport. A lot of people are not comfortable about going out at night; they stay home and watch their VCR."

People in the harness-racing industry may be groping for social theories to explain the game's decline because they don't want to acknowledge the real problem: the inherent shortcomings of the sport itself. Harness racing can't compete with thoroughbred racing, dog racing, casinos, sports betting or the many other forms of gambling offered in America because it is relatively unattractive as a gambling game.

Harness racing has always been plagued by a public perception that it is tinged with larceny. Even if conspiracies among drivers are rare, too many incentives for dishonesty are built into the fabric of the game. Common conditions of races ("nonwinners of $2,000 in the last six starts") invite a driver to lose this week so he can win next week. But most of all the great disadvantage of outside post positions will encourage drivers not to try too hard.

A racing official told me, "I own a few horses, and I run them completely on the level. One night a horse of mine with a lot of speed drew the No. 8 post with several other speed horses inside of him. The driver told me, 'If we go for the lead, this horse is going to be knocked out for the next week or two. I'm just going to take him back and give him an easy race.' What can you do? It's part of the game."

All serious harness bettors know this, and all know that they must constantly worry about which drivers are "going" and which are not. But this is one of the few mysteries involved in handicapping the sport. The worst part of harness racing is its lack of complexity compared to other parimutuel games.

Even neophytes learn quickly that post positions are overridingly important. The more sophisticated players all know to look for the key aspects of horses' trips that will point out future winners -- horses who were parked wide, horses trapped behind a slow pace, etc. Too often the result will be monotonous parades of short-priced winners.

There was an era when racing fans seemed happy enough to collect $3.40, $2.60 and $2.20 across the board. But as exotic wagers have proliferated in all parimutuel games, harness racing seems awfully tame. "There's no question that the lottery mentality has changed people's concept of what is satisfying to them," Bergstein said.

Bergstein hopes that intertrack betting and off-track betting may be the sport's salvation, but it is quite possible that harness racing can't be saved. The product itself has too many inherent defects.