Our History | When racing was king in Yass

Horse racing has been a feature of life in the Yass district since the earliest days of settlement.

James Wood in 1858 recalled how the annual races were the "settling ground for personal differences". When the horse racing finished the fisticuffs started. The Judges stand, a flimsy platform supported by four poles, was both the starting and finishing post but it was also "convenient when the fighting started". The first racecourse was a rough circuit of one and a quarter miles around the town site from behind Commercial Hotel across Lead Street, Cooma Street to Hume Street (now Crago Street), down Dutton and back around to the starting point.

WHO ARE THEY?: Racegoers attending the Yass Picnic Races with Millie Dwyer which ran third in the Gold Cup Race in the 1935. Can you identify these people? Photo: The Collection of the State Library of NSW

WHO ARE THEY?: Racegoers attending the Yass Picnic Races with Millie Dwyer which ran third in the Gold Cup Race in the 1935. Can you identify these people? Photo: The Collection of the State Library of NSW

The Cavan Cup - "to be run for by horses the bona fide property of gentlemen, and ridden by gentlemen in established racing costume thrice round the Yass course"- merited a half page advertisement in the Sydney Gazette in 1836. William Riley, donor of the cup, sent a ton of hay from Cavan for the visiting horses, whilst William Dutton (of Hardwicke) built temporary stabling for them. Henry O'Brien of Douro was always given the first refusal to act as judge.

OFF AND RACING: Racing at Marchmont, 1936. Photo: The Collection of the State Library of NSW

OFF AND RACING: Racing at Marchmont, 1936. Photo: The Collection of the State Library of NSW

At later race meetings, Hamilton Hume owned the odds on favourite "Xantippy". William Davis of Gounyan supplied "Woodpecker" with Joe Buckmaster in the saddle and William Broughton's horse "Mayfly" was ridden by a station hand.

HIGH SOCIETY: Well known local Hugh Stewart and party at the Yass Picnic Races, March 1929. Photo: The Home and Australian Quarterly May 1929

HIGH SOCIETY: Well known local Hugh Stewart and party at the Yass Picnic Races, March 1929. Photo: The Home and Australian Quarterly May 1929

Race tracks were subsequently set up on properties around the district. In the 1860s, the Yass Race Club held their annual event in a paddock on Oak Hill owned by Thomas Barber however road traffic and stock passing over it made it so useless the track returned to a paddock on Henry O'Brien's Douro. In 1868 the Easter races were held on Belle Vale. Races were also held on Waroo.

PICKING A WINNER: Misses Mary Savage, Dorothy Mudge and Marjorie Stewart of Yass, discussing the field at the Picnics in 1929. Photo: The Home and Australian Quarterly May 1929

PICKING A WINNER: Misses Mary Savage, Dorothy Mudge and Marjorie Stewart of Yass, discussing the field at the Picnics in 1929. Photo: The Home and Australian Quarterly May 1929

By the 1870s, all was not well with the Yass Jockey Club. Thomas Colls advises "in consequence of ill-feeling that arose" at the last meeting he declined to accept the position of vice president and Michael Conlon declined to act as secretary. However Yass race meets were advertised far and wide including in the Goulburn Herald and Sydney papers. There was big money to be won. Races such as the Yass Plains Handicap awarded 60 sovereigns to the winner, the Town Plate an even richer 75 sovereigns.

The Yass Courier reported problems in 1903: "It is not for want of necessary funds nor the possession of good stock that the annual races are likely to become a thing of the past, but principally for want of a good course" and "objectionable riding" which had led to a "very great falling off in public interest".

In 1901, James Dick Hill suggested the formation of a Picnic Race Club and by 1927 the current Marchmont site was designated a race course. The Yass Annual Picnic races became an invitation gala occasion reported in the Sydney papers with photographs of fashionably dressed ladies and well bred horses. The Yass Soldiers Memorial hall was the venue for the glittering Picnic Race Ball.

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