Five Victorian race meets that are more fun than Flemington

Travelling Well | Will Brodie | Posted on 16 October 2019

Picnic racing is the new spring carnival so giddy up for these relaxed country race days.

Forget Flemington and Moonee Valley. Victorian horse racing offers more than the glitzy spring carnival. For earthier pleasures, go bush. 

Picnic racing features our slowest horses competing on ancient and obscure tracks, but it is intimate, laid-back and unpretentious. You can bring your own food and drink and the marquees are tents. Airs and graces are optional. 


Slides: Crossing the finish line at the Healesville races; the Dederang races; jockeys on whites horses at Mansfield; and the track at Woolamai.


A day at a picnic bush meeting is a great way to get to know a country region, and you don’t have to be a hardened punter to get an insider’s access to the local community. 

Your race book is sold by a local retirement village. Your beer and hamburgers are served by CFA volunteers or the netball and football club, raising money for schools and hospitals. Fancier offerings – everything from wine and cheese to art – are showcased by local producers.

Member’s enclosures are rare; it’s first in, best dressed for choice slots under the shadiest trees. And often your neighbours under those trees will be families repeating an annual ritual going back generations – many of these tracks have been racing since the 1860s. 

Each picnic meeting is a mini-festival of the surrounding region, a laid-back celebration of its resilience and kid-friendly bonhomie. 


 

Five of the best picnic race meets in Victoria

Mansfield Melbourne Cup Day

190 kilometres north-east of Melbourne

Tuesday 5 November, 2019

Mansfield is picturesque in the High Country way, ragged aged grey gums and yellowed paddocks the foreground, wild ranges the backdrop. Its Melbourne Cup event features a Lawn Party Package offering gourmet treats. But it also admits children under 16 for free and encourages them to play tennis-ball cricket, and race results are declared on painted tin. A unique feature of this meeting is the announcement of the National Equine Art Prize. This is no encouragement prize for dabblers – it’s worth $6000 and attracts serious and varied artists. Mansfield, which hosted its first race in 1855, is now a professional training facility and a nursery for equine talent. When star jockey and Mansfield alumni Luke Nolen was asked to name his favourite horses, he listed multi-million-dollar-winning super-mare Black Caviar… and four-time Mansfield Cup winner Doolam Gem!

Insider tip: You can bring your own food in, but there’s no BYO alcohol. Fear not: catering is excellent, including the Fillies Champagne Bar run by High Country winemaker Ros Ritchie.

Healesville Cup

65 kilometres east of Melbourne

Saturday 11 January, 2020

Nature shows off at this gorgeous Yarra Valley attraction. The towering elm trees lining the Healesville straight lower temperatures significantly, enabling this stalwart to race through summer’s hottest months. An hour from Melbourne’s CBD, this is picnic racing’s verdant day-trip option for city slickers, though you’d be mad not to stop the night and enjoy attractions including Healesville Sanctuary, world-class wineries and, aptly, the “largest volunteer infrastructure project in Australia”, the Yarra Valley Railway. This is an engaged and organised community – the race club owns its lush course and reputedly if it ever shuts down and the site is sold, monies must flow into the local community and be spent within 15 kilometres of the Healesville GPO. Simple but comfortable marquees line the straight and you’re likely to encounter vintage car displays, kids’ running races and bands that get even the oldies dancing. 

Insider tip: While in Healesville, you can seek out the 73-metre-tall ‘Karatha Giant’ mountain ash in nearby Toolangi State Forest.

Woolamai Cup

135 kilometres south-east of Melbourne

Saturday 8 February, 2020

At Woolamai you get a great view of the races, and of the cows grazing in the paddocks beyond the back straight, because the intimate circuit slopes away slightly from your vantage point. It’s the only picnic track where you might also catch a glimpse of ocean. Though you are nestled beneath foothills, Westernport Bay and the Bass Coast beckon; buses deliver racegoers from nearby Phillip Island, Inverloch, Dalyston, Wonthaggi and Kilcunda. 

This is a small track. When stayers contest a longer race, they pass the winning post twice, demanding a cheer from the assembled throng on both occasions. Off the racing surface, everything is close at hand: cheap food and beer, the betting ring, the mounting yard and the horse stalls are within strolling distance. As at Healesville, large elm trees provide the shade. Beneath, contented punters nab the antique picnic benches or lounge in camp chairs. This is a classic no-frills picnic track, where you are served by Dalyston Football Club and the Bass Valley Pony Club and can expect loud shirts and hats, colourful characters and the Wonthaggi Citizens Band. 

Insider tip: Sort out a dedicated driver or take up one of the many buses on offer. The track is a couple of kilometres off the Bass Highway and the club and local constabulary take the drink drive message seriously. Stay overnight at RACV’s Inverloch Resort to shorten the drive.

Buchan Cup

355 kilometres east of Melbourne 

Saturday 15 February, 2020

Buchan’s annual meeting is the ultimate grassroots racing experience. It’s a local tradition hosting family reunions and catch-ups between old friends, businesses and clubs, though its down-to-earth charm makes repeat visitors of many outsiders. The sheds and even the track feel hewn from the thick scrub and forest that obscure the horses in the back straight. Waiting for bright glimpses of the runners to emerge from behind the snow gums is part of the novelty of this primeval venue. It’s all tin and timber here, and you will see Drizabones, flannelette singlets, fund-raising stubbie holders, Akubras, and hot dogs served by volunteers. This horse-centric district provided remounts for the Indian Army in colonial times and long ago featured racetracks on private properties; Buchan first raced at this Canni Creek track in 1887. It feels like not much has changed; the track is borrowed from the landscape, not imposed upon it. 

Insider tip: To set up their hospitality tents in the best shaded areas around the course, some canny veterans arrive the day before the Cup with their caravans. There is ample parking on course.

In the early days of colonial settlement, a demand for horses suitable for use as remounts in the Indian Army developed horse breeding as one the most profitable undertakings on the larger selections in the Buchan-Gelantipy areas.

Mansfield races
Mansfield races

Mansfield, which hosted its first race in 1855, is now a professional training facility and a nursery for equine talent.


Dederang Cup

330 kilometres north-east of Melbourne

Saturday 14 March, 2020

Another annual event held in spectacular surrounds – the Kiewa Valley, ringed by forested mountains – the Dederang Cup has been run 154 times. A chalkboard conveys race-day information, and a big screen on the back of a truck provides a view of the race when runners are obscured. After the horses run 1600 metres to contest the Cup, humans of all ages get their chance to run the same course in the ‘Madman’s Mile’. Then it’s tug-of-war. Festivities carry on at the Dederang Pub, where it’s rumoured two-up is indulged. But this being the High Country, your bus (only $10 as part of entry packages) can also transport you to Bright, Mount Beauty or Frueauf Village atop Falls Creek.  

Insider tip: This meeting was moved from January to March to escape the heat, but shade is still at a premium. Be early or pay for an umbrella-and-table special. 
 

The Victorian Picnic Racing Season runs from October to May on weekends and holidays. Healesville, Woolamai and Balnarring have six meetings each per season. Yea and Alexandra host three meetings each, and Mansfield two.

Clubs with one-off events are Drouin (Boxing Day); Merton (New Year’s Day); Dederang (14 March); Buchan (15 February); Hinnomunjie at Omeo (7 March) and Tambo Valley (12 April).

Further reading: 
Slow Tracks: A Canter Through Victoria and Country Races by Jude Fitcher
Country Racing picnic site
Picnic racing site