9 February 2024

And they're (almost) off ... 123rd annual Yass Picnic Races set to take to historic track

| Sally Hopman
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Women at the Yass picic races in 1930

Today or back in 1930, the women of Yass put on their finery for the Yass Picnic Races. Fashions on the Field will be a highlight of this year’s event, on 24 February at the historic Marchmont course. Photo: Sam Hood, State Library of NSW.

In its heyday, the Yass Picnic Races was the place to be.

Everyone from the squattocracy to the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker would don their Sunday best and head there for the best day out. People and horses would come from across the state to catch up with friends, check out who was wearing what and with whom – and of course, have a punt.

Believed to be one of the oldest picnic race meetings in NSW, the Yass event, the 123rd, is on Saturday 24 February at the Marchmont Reserve, just out of town.

The formation of a Yass Picnic race club is believed to have been flagged as early as 1901 by one James Dick Hill followed by the gazettal of the Marchmont Racecourse as the official site.

From the start, the Yass event sparked the interest of newspapers and magazines at the time, city and country, often with race day fashion gracing the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly, as did the social event of the season, the Picnic Races Ball at the Soldiers Memorial Hall in the main street of town. The actual race results also made the interstate and national newspapers, but at the back in the sports section.

READ ALSO A new plan for Marchmont Reserve hopes to make it into year-round community facility

One of the biggest races in Yass’s history was the 1836 Cavan Cup, which, according to a half-page ad in the Sydney Gazette newspaper, was “to be run for horses the bona fide property of gentlemen, and ridden by gentlemen in established racing costume thrice round the Yass course”. The owners of Cavan at the time sent a load of hay for the racehorses while William Dutton of Hardwicke Stud provided stables.

The new president of the Yass Picnic Races, Hugh Rainger, said it had been a challenging couple of years leading up to the 2024 event.

“We took a few hits with COVID but we know what a good event it is, and how it used to be, that we knew the locals would always support it. It’s too important to this community.”

Mr Rainger said the committee had taken the big picture view, looking at what the races did for the town, knowing that the locals would never let it die out. “The locals will always stick together to keep something as important as this,” he said. “We’ve got some new enthusiasm injected into the committee – and we have a lot more sponsorship money coming in.

“Also, after COVID, people are keen to get out and about more.”

Black and white image of jockeys

Lady jockeys line up for their race in the 1936 Yass Picnic Races. Photo: Sam Hood, State Library of NSW.

Mr Rainger said with the growth of the Yass community, more people had moved out from the cities, many of whom had not gone to a picnic race before.

“The idea of it being something for landed gentry has dissipated over the years, now it’s more a community event and we have a lot more facilities on offer including the new Marchmont Marquee where we feed and water you all day long, or you can set up your own marquee.”

Fashions on the Field will be a highlight of the day with locals and guests invited to don their finest.

Horses and jockeys are expected from throughout NSW and the ACT, including Canberra, Harden and Cootamundra.

Members and sponsors are welcome to join the Yass Picnic Races to help the event continue to play an important role in the town’s history. More information is available online.

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