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Australians flock to annual cockroach races

/ Source: Reuters

Gambling-mad Australians, teased for willingly betting on two flies crawling up a wall, have expanded their horizons -- now they’re placing bets on cockroaches.

A record crowd of more than 7,000 punters is expected to attend the 23rd annual Cockroach Races in the east coast city of Brisbane on January 26, Australia’s national day, with some bringing their own runners and others buying competitors there.

“More and more people are coming to town especially for this premier racing event, where everyone can be the owner of a thoroughbred,” said organizer Richard Deery, general manager of Brisbane’s Story Bridge Hotel that hosts the races.

As the story goes, the race dates back to the day 23 years ago when two old punters were sitting in the bar arguing over which suburb had the biggest and fastest cockroaches.

Australia is home to about 450 native species of cockroach, which are not pests and are mainly bush dwellers, and also has around six species of pest cockroach, most of them introduced from outside the continent and which now plague almost every house.

The two punters decided to race some roaches the next day -- and history was made.

Australians have the highest rate of gambling in the world, a passion dating back to when the first convict settlers, shipped out from Britain in 1788, reportedly bet on cards and dice.

By the early 1800s, horse racing was the rage but this has now been overtaken by the flashing slot or poker machines that line the walls of almost every pub, hotel and casino. More than 20 percent of the world’s poker machines are in Australia, about five times as many as in the United States on a per capita basis.

Gambling nation
National gambling statistics released late last year showed Australians gambled away a record $12 billion in the year to June 2002 -- nearly two percent of Gross Domestic Product and slightly more than the nation’s defense budget.

Few Australians balk at betting. The nation grinds to a standstill every year for the Melbourne Cup horse race and the nation’s richest man, Kerry Packer, is an unrepentant gambler, known for spending millions at the baccarat table.

Packer probably won’t be spotted cheering on his favorite roach but Deery said increasing numbers of people were heading to Brisbane to bet on the 14 races that are run over the day with contestants encouraged to train and bring their own cockroaches.

Last year’s winner, Osama bin Liner, was lovingly reared by his owners who turned up on the day in full beards and headwear, dressed as the world’s most wanted man.

Other past winners include Drain Lover, whose name plays on that of two-time Melbourne Cup winner Rain Lover, Millennium Bug and Guns’n Roaches, whose contestants modeled themselves on U.S. rock band Guns’N Roses, carrying their roaches in boxes shaped like tiny guitars.

Deery said people who lacked time to trap and train their own six-legged runners could buy a cockroach from the house stable for $4 but warned that demand always outstripped supply. All funds raised go to a local children’s hospital.

The races are held on a circular track with the cockroaches released from an upturned bucket in the middle. First to the edge is the winner. The steeplechase event is a bit trickier with the runner having to navigate a circular fence -- well, a garden hose -- to get to the edge.

Deery said the same cockroach can be entered in any number of events for a $5 fee, if you can catch it after the first race.

“But for the animals it is short-term success and glory as most don’t last to return the next year,” said Deery.

“They meet a varied end. One year the steward threw a handful into the crowd, while another year one punter was talked into eating one, all in the name of charity.”