Five Victorian race meets that are more fun than Flemington
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.
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.