AND THEY’RE off! The crowd roars, and people surge to their feet as the favourite approaches the first fence. My syndicate is somewhat less enthusiastic, as our four-legged friend decides to stop and clean himself before chewing on the first hurdle and curling up for a snooze.

I suppose we couldn’t really expect the next Shergar for 19. And this wasn’t the Gold Cup at Ascot, but the Handicap Hurdle mouse race at Kilmington Village Hall in Devon.

John Robinson, a pedigree Limousin and Texel farmer at Cruwys Morchard, Tiverton, has been running mouse racing evenings for four years, raising 1000s for charity. He now breeds his own mice and has over 300 highly-trained racers.

“The mice are easier to control than the cattle and sheep,” he jokes. They cost about 1 a day to feed – they eat bagged dog food – and take just a few minutes to water and clean out each morning. “They are also somewhat easier to breed from than the farm stock.”

Mr Robinson and his wife Sue travel around the south-west to hold mouse races most weekends in the winter – except for February when they’re lambing. Their neighbours Rod and Carol Chisholm help out with the track construction and tote tent.

Tonight’s race is being held by the Honiton and Axminster NFU in aid of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) and the Devon Air Ambulance.

Livestock auctioneer Rob Venner of Greenslade Taylor Hunt sells off the mice for each of the six races, with punters paying up to 35 to “own” their mouse for the race. “The most we ever sold a mouse for was 150 and it didn’t win,” says Mr Robinson. Prizes are paid for the first two mice home, having covered the six-foot track and scaled up to 12 jumps.

Wee beasties

Mr Venner normally auctions off more traditional farm animals at Taunton market twice a week. “This is the first time I’ve ever had to sell a mouse,” he says. But the theory behind it is the same. “It’s the same whether it’s cattle, sheep, mice, or any other livestock.”

Once the six mice have been sold, the tote opens for 50p bets at 2:1, paying out only on the winner. “The most we’ve ever raised in one night was 2600,” says Mr Robinson. “If there’s a bar it makes all the difference – the more lubricated people get the more they spend.”

The mice race through a specially constructed wooden box with six lanes and a perspex front, with jumps ranging from post-and-rails and brushes to tubes and a see-saw as the final fence. It is the see-saw which causes the most hilarity, as frequently the leading mouse loses its nerve when it reaches the top. As the balance tips, it takes fright and tears back towards the start, to roars of approval or despair from the punters.

But it is not for food that these noble steeds take on such a quest. “They’re just very inquisitive,” says Mr Robinson. “We tried putting cheese and chocolate in at the end but it made no difference.” And although he may tease punters about the mice’s rigorous training regime, an exercise area in their pens at home is all they require to keep in shape.

The mice are also relatively well behaved, he adds. “Sometimes they’ll bite – but Rod gets bitten more than I do – he’s obviously tastier than I am!”

Nicki Robson, assistant group secretary at the local NFU, says she organised the evening in place of the annual dinner. “We wanted something completely different – originally we were going to have a horse racing evening but then we heard about the mice.” Local companies offered to sponsor each race, and about 100 people ended up raising almost 540 for charity.

The Robinson’s success is purely through word of mouth – although being featured on a BBC television programme earlier this year created a surge of interest from as far afield as East Anglia. “We’re booked up until September/October next year,” says Mr Robinson. “We’re even holding a special race for a friend’s wedding in July.”

Let’s hope the bride is a better judge of mice than I proved to be.