An empty seat takes on different moods: in a park it’s forlorn, on a bus it’s expectant, on a verandah relaxed, in a café nervous. At the Bylong Mouse Races it’s taken!
That was our first lesson. Bring your own seat or get there early and bags one. There was something satisfying about not being able to find a seat amongst this animated racing crowd, in a village where ‘busy’ usually means two cars have stopped at the same time.
Bylong is a one-shop stop that services a rich pastoral valley and, since the complete sealing of the Bylong Valley Way, it attracts an increasing number of travelers to and from the coast. The shop sells petrol, snacks and good coffee, a fine selection of local wines, oils and condiments, and ‘pick-me-up’ goods that seem to latch on to you before you can get out the door. Outside there’s a peaceful garden, also with magnetic seats.
It was our first time at the Bylong Mouse Races though they have been going for more than twenty years and support many local charities. As with a lot of country events I had no idea what to expect. Nor did I find anyone who could tell me, even though Kandos and Rylstone are only half an hour away and you would think they would make up a large number of the one thousand plus, crowd.
How do you hold a mouse race so that everyone can see, so that the mice don’t escape into the crowd, and so you can lay your bets knowing you won’t be diddled? All my questions were answered when we watched the first race in one of two very large tents.
The race course is not, as I expected, on the ground, but at eye level. It is a long narrow wooden construction (perhaps five metres) with ten compartments one on top of the other. These long alleyways are made of perspex, able to be seen from two sides; and about 5cm square, designed to encourage forward movement by a small creature. Near race-time an official carries the mice in, in the 10-compartment box which snaps snuggly to the course. When the bookies are ready the barrier is pulled up and the race begins.
The race caller has all the aplomb of Des Hoysted but the mice are no galloping gee gees. One or two look as if they’re asleep, one makes a metre long dash and then climbs over itself to get back to the start, a few start and stop and start again, and there are two or three who take the whole thing seriously. The excitement of the crowd matches Randwick as we urge our favourites on. Sluggish mice get an encouraging poke up the backside with a feather duster and eventually there’s a finish.
I read again the description for my choice: ‘Rosie’. ‘This mouse is so hot she sizzled up the tracks to the Gold Coast and is now set for the big one. Watch Out.’ Mmmm!
OK let’s try another bookie. There are three of them in the betting/bar tent offering conservative odds, reminding us that every mice is a favorite.
We have no money to collect but we enthusiastically give some more money away in the hope that this time we’ll be lucky. The bar serves our favourite drinks and we consider our surroundings.
You would think that a large bar tent lined with haybales would provide plenty of seating. But no! Some hay bales form family paddocks scattered with eskies, rugs, and fold-away chairs. Some hold hungry punters wolfing steak sandwiches. Some are just there to lounge against while you sip a beer and consider the next race.
The fashions don’t quite match Randwick; or Mudgee racecourse for that matter. It is the uniform of a country show minus collared shirts and jodpurs: baseball or bucket caps, t-shirts or singlets, shorts or jeans (often exposing those unappealing cracks) and thongs or sneakers. Those who got into the spirit of the race wear furry noses and ears.
There is a plentiful supply of kids and they all have the same look – as if it is their first trip to Disneyland. Lucky dips, show bags, jumping castle, raffles, merchandise store, auctions, the amazing bucking bull. And mouse races!
Altogether it is a very satisfactory country day: a few bets, a few beers, a few cheers. But definitely no empty seats.
The two images taken by the author in 2009 give some idea of the race course and the crowds.