BATHURST -- Plaques and monuments to great thoroughbreds abound in this country, but when the Aussies name a bar after a horse, that's a serious honor. As I downed a beer at Bathurst Racecourse, I noticed that I was standing at the Rising Prince Bar, and exposed my ignorance by asking, "Who was Rising Prince?"

It would be grossly insufficient to say that the gelding was a local hero, the greatest product of a small country track. Rising Prince epitomized many of the virtues of the Australian racing game. While it is a universal dream of small-scale owners and breeders that a horse from humble origins might develop into a champion, this is a dream which comes true in Australia more often than in the rest of the world.

In the United States and Europe, racing is a rich man's game. You wouldn't expect to get into a taxi to Belmont Park and hear the driver tell you that he owns a horse running in the fifth race.

Australia is different, partly because this country has a fundamentally different attitude toward wealth. If the American credo is that any kid can claw his way to the top and become the next Donald Trump, Australians boast that they don't have many Donald Trumps. They are proud that their society has such a broad middle class, with few signs of abject poverty and few displays of ostentatious wealth. Their high minimum wages and high tax rates tend to push everybody toward the middle. And this fact of life is reflected in the horse business.

One day in Sydney I took two taxi rides, struck up conversations with both drivers, and learned that both owned racehorses. One of them told me that his best horse, a grandson of the great U.S. stallion Mr. Prospector, had won a race with a $12,000 purse the previous week. With relatively low basic costs and decent purses for the races at the big-city tracks, members of the working class can afford to get into the horse business here. And, as Rising Prince demonstrated in 1985, they can even hope to win one of the most important races on the continent.

The owners of Rising Prince called themselves the Exchange Racing Syndicate, and while the name may connote financial high-rolling, the title came from the Exchange Hotel, the bar in the town of Lithgow where they would meet and drink after work. There were 12 of them, all working men: Reg Moran worked in a chocolate factory; Les Moore was the secretary of a coal-mining union; several of the others were miners. They agreed to kick in a small amount of money each week and lease a horse or two from Deirdre Stein, a breeder and trainer based in Bathurst. This is a common type of arrangement here: the syndicate would get the horse at no initial cost, but would pay all of the training expenses and would give Stein one-third of any purse winnings.

Thus did they acquire Rising Prince, the son of a country stallion with a $2,400 stud fee. Nobody went into the venture with any illusions, least of all Stein, who understands the economics of racing at places like Bathurst all too well. "Country horses basically can't make a profit," she said. "The ordinary runner has to win one race a month to come out square." But if the purses are low, so are the costs of keeping a horse in the country -- only about $16 a day. That makes owning a horse an affordable hobby, and owners are spurred by the fact that many country horses are good enough to move on to the big-city tracks and win the big purses there.

Rising Prince won a minor stakes at Bathurst as a 2-year-old, and that victory alone fulfilled the most optimistic hopes of the owners. "When he won that $3,000 prize, we thought we were made," said Ted Healey, a builder who was a member of the syndicate. But Stein thought the gelding had the makings of something more than a good country horse. She told the syndicate, "You may think I'm mad, but this horse may win a Derby."

When Rising Prince matured and got the opportunity to run longer distances, he proved his trainer right. As a 4-year-old he started winning stakes at the city tracks. He was already a hero in Bathurst; people would bring their children to Stein's farm so they could pet him. And when the gelding was 5, Stein took him to Melbourne for the famed spring racing carnival and, in particular, for the event that experts here consider the continent's true championship test: the W.S. Cox Plate. When Rising Prince won it, and scored another Grade I stakes victory a week later, his career earnings had soared past $500,000.

"We got a heap of enjoyment from following him on to the big races," said Healey. "And we bought some more horses. But otherwise I don't think it affected us."

After the Cox Plate victory, however, Stein and the owners received an offer that could have affected their economic lives. American interests made a $1 million offer for Rising Prince. It was a bid that no owner could refuse after calculating the risks and rewards. Even if Rising Prince stayed healthy and productive, he probably could not have earned another $1 million racing in Australia. If he got hurt, he would have no value because he was a gelding.

Stein turned down the offer.

"He meant too much to us as a horse," Stein said. "If he went to America and something happened to him, they might send him to the dogger {i.e., the dog-food factory}. Here I knew if anything happened to him he'd have a good home for life. Money is not the only thing."

Indeed, misfortune did befall Rising Prince. He injured a tendon and was sidelined for nearly a year; when he returned to competition he was not the same. He never won a race after that memorable week at the spring carnival in Melbourne. Yet Stein doesn't betray even the slightest regret that she failed to take the money and run.

Rising Prince lives happily on Stein's farm, where he is now one of her prize show horses. Stein is still training horses for races with $3,000 purses at Bathurst. And the owners of what was once the most prominent racehorse in Australia still work in the mines and drink their beer at the Exchange Hotel.