“I’M A COUN­TRY GIRL”

HER LIFE IS BE­ING MADE INTO A FILM, AND NEXT MONTH SHE’LL BE HON­OURED WITH A PRES­TI­GIOUS AWARD OVERSEAS. BUT IT’S THE LESS GLAM­OROUS SIDE OF HORSE RAC­ING THAT SPURS ON MICHELLE PAYNE

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JAKE TER­REY Styling BRAD HOMES Cre­ative Di­rec­tion ALEKSANDRA BEARE Words JOR­DAN BAKER

She took on the male-dom­i­nated sport of horse rac­ing and won. As for those who say it’s time for Michelle Payne to re­tire – she tells Stel­lar she’ll make that call.

It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that Michelle Payne first won the Mel­bourne Cup in 2015. In fact she had ac­tu­ally won it many times be­fore – but on those oc­ca­sions, she was the horse.

As chil­dren, her older broth­ers used to ride Payne and her clos­est sib­ling, Ste­vie, in mock horse races. Payne was Let’s Elope, and with Shane Dye – aka her brother An­drew – perched on her back, she would do laps of the lounge room on all fours. Ste­vie would go hard and win the shorter-course events, but Payne was a stayer and reg­u­larly took out the Cup.

As the youngest of 10, she was brought up by her trainer dad, Paddy, to look af­ter horses and ride. It was a world of frosty morn­ings, smelly sta­bles and muddy floors. The fam­ily was part pro­tec­tive tribe, part Lord Of The Flies. “A jour­nal­ist once said our house was like a scene from Beirut,” Ber­nadette, one of Payne’s six older sis­ters, says. “It was fun – we would fight, and within five min­utes we’d be back play­ing games.”

Payne’s Cup win in 2015 has cat­a­pulted her into a very dif­fer­ent world, in which she poses for lav­ish mag­a­zine shoots and wears de­signer dresses to the mem­bers’ stand at Royal Rand­wick. Ac­claimed actor Rachel Grif­fiths is mak­ing a film about her life. And next month, Payne will go to Washington, where she will re­ceive a pres­ti­gious Longines equestrian award that has pre­vi­ously been be­stowed upon Princess Anne, Bo Derek and Athina Onas­sis de Mi­randa.

The glam­our, how­ever, will not se­duce Michelle Payne. Noth­ing could take her away from her horses.

WHEN­EVER 31-YEAR-OLD Payne feels a quiver of fear be­fore a race, she says a prayer to her mother, Rosa Mary, who died in a car ac­ci­dent when Payne was just six months old, and the fear fades. “I have a lot of faith that God will look af­ter me, and Mum is up there look­ing over me,” she tells Stel­lar.

Payne’s at­ti­tude to the dan­gers of her sport is brave, given she has ev­ery rea­son to worry. Her el­dest sis­ter, Brigid, died in 2007 from a seizure that doc­tors be­lieve was linked to a fall from a horse. Payne her­self has bro­ken 15 ver­te­brae, frac­tured her skull and had bleed­ing on the brain.

Her fall last May was the worst of her ca­reer; 500-kilo­gram horse Dutch Courage stepped on her at pace, lac­er­at­ing her stom­ach and liver and split­ting her pan­creas. “When you look at the list of in­juries she has had, we can see she’s ex­tremely re­silient,” Ber­nadette says. “As soon as she re­cov­ered, she would get straight back into rac­ing.”

Af­ter her May ac­ci­dent, Payne in­tended to get back on the horse af­ter her re­cov­ery, in this case her Cup­win­ning mount Prince of Pen­zance, and at­tempt to re-cre­ate the magic of the 2015 Mel­bourne Cup, when they rode to a vic­tory that stopped a na­tion for an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent rea­son, and when, to the joy of women across the coun­try, she told her doubters to “get stuffed”.

Not ev­ery­one, how­ever, has as much be­lief in Payne’s pow­ers of re­cov­ery as she does. The horse’s own­ers were wor­ried Payne wouldn’t re­cover in time, and chose a dif­fer­ent jockey for the Mem­sie Stakes at Caulfield in Au­gust.

“We know she’s had neg­a­tive med­i­cal opin­ion and she seems de­ter­mined to ride on, how­ever we think she should re­tire,” man­ag­ing owner John Richards said at the time. “She’s had med­i­cal advice not to ride again, which she’s cho­sen to ig­nore… We wish she would rest on her lau­rels. There’s noth­ing more for her to gain by rid­ing on.” Payne dis­putes this, say­ing the doc­tors gave her the all clear to ride af­ter six weeks.

When she found out she wouldn’t be rid­ing Prince, she re­acted on Twit­ter with a post that she quickly deleted. “Not any­more, I’m done,” she wrote. “Why work your arse off for peo­ple who don’t ap­pre­ci­ate what you do and write you off any­way #more­to­life.”

Payne tells Stel­lar the tweet was born of frus­tra­tion. Of course she un­der­stood there was big money at stake, that the own­ers were un­sure if she would be fit enough, and that they were wor­ried about her health. Prince’s trainer, Dar­ren Weir, also thought she should re­tire.

But Payne was not ready to give up rac­ing. “I was work­ing re­ally hard,” she says. “Ob­vi­ously they didn’t owe me any­thing, but I felt it would have been the loy­alty of hav­ing won the Cup to let me have a go at it. The way I like to look at it is we won the Mel­bourne Cup. Take away the neg­a­tiv­ity – it’s done now, that’s life.”

Prince put in an av­er­age show­ing at the Stakes, and again in the Makybe Diva Stakes a few weeks later. She rode against him in the Her­bert Power Stakes in Oc­to­ber, and dur­ing that race Prince frac­tured a fore­leg. A cou­ple of months be­fore the Cup, he was re­tired.

Payne thinks Prince’s fate might have been dif­fer­ent if she had been al­lowed to ride him in those races. “I know the im­por­tance of ev­ery race and the sig­nif­i­cance of get­ting to the grand fi­nal is all the steps along the way,” she says. “Some of those races they were try­ing to win, and he couldn’t win those races. In the end, whether that was the rea­son it re­sulted in him fin­ish­ing, who knows? I would have taken another ap­proach.”

Payne vis­ited Prince in hos­pi­tal. She was hop­ing he might end up on her farm, but he will re­main with Weir. “I’m sure I can go and say hello to him,” she says.

Over the next year or two, Payne will wind up her rac­ing ca­reer and be­come a full-time trainer. Late last year, Vic­to­ria changed its rules to al­low jock­eys to ride and train si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and Payne was the first to win a race on a horse she had trained her­self. She ad­mits it can be dif­fi­cult as a trainer and jockey to bal­ance a pas­sion for horses with the busi­ness of rac­ing. “You have to re­mind your­self that you’re try­ing to win races. But at the same time you can love and re­spect their per­son­al­i­ties. Yes, they’re race­horses, but if some­thing hap­pened I’d be dev­as­tated. They’re like your chil­dren.”

Payne isn’t sure when her last race as a jockey will be, but she knows one thing: she will be the one mak­ing that de­ci­sion. “I’ve had a lot of bad in­juries and my fam­ily would be happy to see me stop,” she says. “But I think that will be the time when I feel I’ll be ready to move onto some­thing else.”

THERE ARE FIVE WOMEN who Payne looks up to in rac­ing – her sis­ters. “They paved the way,” she says. “They put up with a lot more crap than I did, but they just brushed it off. It was dif­fer­ent for them; there were hardly any girls.”

Of the seven girls and three boys in the fam­ily, all but two – Ste­vie, who has Down syn­drome, and Mar­garet – be­came jock­eys. “Mar­garet was smart enough to re­alise it was too dan­ger­ous and to go to univer­sity in­stead,” Ber­nadette says. “I stopped about six years ago, mainly due to in­juries. I had a lot of in­juries.”

Ber­nadette agrees that life as a jockey was tougher for the older Payne girls, be­cause in her day male strength was con­sid­ered the su­pe­rior abil­ity, de­spite a grow­ing un­der­stand­ing that women’s affin­ity with the horses was just as valu­able. But still, she says, none of the Payne girls were as tal­ented as Michelle.

“I never had the same abil­ity as Michelle to make it to the top level,” she ad­mits. “From a re­ally early age she just had a nat­u­ral affin­ity with race­horses. Horses were nicer to her. Some­times they would change rid­ers, and the horses would al­ways go bet­ter for her.”

Of the Payne women, Michelle was the only one to voice her de­ter­mi­na­tion

to win the Cup. “She was as smart as most adults when she was young,” Ber­nadette adds. “She was de­ter­mined.”

Payne be­lieves that a lack of faith in fe­male jock­eys per­sists, de­spite her Cup win. “Most train­ers and own­ers, if they have a choice to put on a jockey, they will put on a male,” she says. “If some­thing goes wrong, they’ll blame the fact that they put a fe­male jockey on, even though it prob­a­bly would have hap­pened with a male jockey. That’s just the men­tal­ity of how they think in rac­ing in Aus­tralia.”

She agrees her suc­cess has made her a pos­i­tive role model for girls as­pir­ing to a ca­reer in rac­ing. “I try to por­tray to the younger girls to take it very se­ri­ously,” she says. “To me, that feels like the most spe­cial thing… to be a great role model to the girls com­ing through.”

Even so, she doesn’t think of her win as be­ing a wa­ter­shed for women. “I was just do­ing my best,” she says. But oth­ers see it dif­fer­ently. Rachel Grif­fiths was in­spired to bring Payne’s story to the screen by the jockey’s drive and re­silience. “It’s dif­fi­cult to put into words the col­lec­tive joy her win gave us,” she tells Stel­lar. “The cheer­ing was uni­ver­sal – fa­thers, moth­ers and daugh­ters. Both within the in­dus­try and for those, like me, who knew noth­ing about the sport, we un­der­stood both the sym­bolic and very con­crete achieve­ments her win rep­re­sented.

“It’s hard to name another sport where men and women com­pete with equal stand­ing. I think young women will find the sto­ries be­hind Payne’s win enor­mously en­cour­ag­ing.”

Next month, Payne will travel to Washington DC to col­lect the Longines Ladies Award, which cel­e­brates women who achieve at the high­est level in the equestrian world and has pre­vi­ously hon­oured the likes of the Princess Royal and Onas­sis. She will take the stage on May 19 along­side three oth­ers, in­clud­ing showjumper Ge­orgina Bloomberg, the daugh­ter of for­mer New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. Payne will be the first jockey and first Aus­tralian to win one, and she will ac­cept the award wear­ing a spe­cially de­signed cou­ture gown. (“It’s nice to have that fem­i­nin­ity,” she says of em­brac­ing elegance for the evening.)

But she’ll only be away for a week, be­cause there are horses to be fed and races to be planned. Michelle Payne’s fu­ture isn’t in fancy ball­rooms. It is in muddy pad­docks, hope­fully with a few kids – four, she says, rather than 10 – to whom she can pass on the fam­ily trade. “I’m a coun­try girl at heart,” she says.

MICHELLE WEARS Bot­tega Veneta gown, bot­te­gaveneta.com/au; Jan Lo­gan ear­rings, jan­lo­gan.com; Longines watch, longines.com HAIR Keiren Street us­ing Wella Pro­fes­sion­als MAKE-UP Char­lie Kielty us­ing Tom Ford

RID­ING HIGH (be­low left) Michelle Payne cel­e­brates her Mel­bourne Cup win on Prince of Pen­zance in 2015; and (be­low right) en­joy­ing the mo­ment with her strap­per and brother Ste­vie.

“THE WAY I LIKE TO LOOK AT IT IS WE WON THE MEL­BOURNE CUP. TAKE AWAY THE NEG­A­TIV­ITY – IT’S DONE NOW, THAT’S LIFE”

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