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Of Mice & Lions 

Local rodents psych themselves up for the Cheese Hill Downs

Looking forward to a career as a professional horse bettor? Or, even better than a bettor, do you dream of someday being the owner of a filly? Whoa, Nelly. Why not start small? Begin with mouse racing, which you can take part in this Saturday at the second annual Cheese Hill Downs at the Maplewood Lions Club. Even if you don't have any gambling aspirations, you can always go just because it's frigging mouse racing, and how crazy is that?

Something of a local tradition, mouse racing has become the fundraising activity du jour for numerous churches and civic organizations around the metro area. This Saturday's cheekily named races, cosponsored by the Maplewood and Brentwood Lions Clubs, mark the second time in as many years that the two groups have banded together to offer the event (and the 2004 affair already has a date set). Explains Charles Kanne, president of the Maplewood club, "Mouse racing has replaced bingo as the most popular fundraising pastime and our biggest money-maker. People find this much more exciting than bingo. Besides, we were giving away too much prize money at bingo."

To answer the big question about mouse racing -- that question being, "Huh?" -- here's how it works. It's a little bit like horse racing. Real mice of all different colors and breeding are used, although they receive no formal training or specialized diets beforehand. Six races will be held over the course of the evening, culminating with a seventh championship race pitting the victors from the previous six races against one another. Like horses, mice compete on an oval-shaped track; unlike horses, says Kanne, "not all the mice take off from the starting gate like a bat out of hell. Sometimes a mouse gets halfway home before nervously deciding to turn around and start running the wrong way." And no, there is no cheese perched tauntingly at the finish line.

The betting is structured similar to horse racing's as well -- which means, among other things, that nobody under the age of eighteen is allowed entry. (In fact, that's one of the reasons Cheese Hill Downs is held in September, Kanne says, in the hopes that schoolkids will be too busy with early-semester homework and other adolescent dramas to attempt to sneak in). Bets are only taken at the $2 amount, but there are also non-race events that allow other wagers. For example, in a game known as "Eight States," a mouse is placed on Missouri on a map of the Midwest, and participants bet on which adjoining state the mouse will fully cross into (tail and all) first.

For the gambling-shy, armfuls of door prizes will also be awarded, good for local goods and services like meals at restaurants, oil changes and car washes. Or, rather than betting on mice, handing over $10 beforehand buys official rodent sponsorship and will be noted on the event's programs.

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