POST TIME IS SECONDS AWAY AS fans in the parish hall at St. Stephen Protomartyr Catholic Church in St. Louis rush to place their last-minute bets. A recorded bugle bleats, announcer Bob Dobbins yells, "The flag is up!" and six specially bred racing mice scamper down the 12-foot minitrack. A mere 10.4 seconds later, a black-and-white speedster named Oreo dashes across the finish line first.
It's more Eek-ness than Preakness, but the rodent competitions organized by Dobbins and partner Harvey Coffee aren't just a break from the rat race. In three years, the men and their mice have raised more than $100,000 for churches, schools and fraternal organizations in the St. Louis area. Says Dennis Dotter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which raises cash for Alzheimer's research: "Far and away, I've cleared the most money with Bob and Harvey."
Coffee, 62, a retired F-15 jet-fighter design engineer at McDonnell Douglas, got into mouse racing in 1992 with Dobbins, 61, a former production supervisor at the Ford Motor Company, as a way of filling his spare time. Coffee designed the portable acrylic racetrack, parade area and paddock—and, since there are no minimouse jockeys to whip the racers along, he built a starting gate that gives them a gentle push as it opens. To distinguish one mouse from another, Coffee breeds not just for speed but for color—black, brown, gray, white and gold, with some mixed colors. The result is that he has 200 mice in a shed on his 70-acre farm in St. Charles County, Mo.
The rodents do give a good run for the money—especially Oreo, an 18-month-old mini-Secretariat who, racing at very short odds, has won 15 races so far this year. As Oreo runs away from the pack, bettor Mike Szerzinski yells at Coffee, "I think you're giving Oreo steroids!" At least he didn't claim he had slipped him a Mickey.
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