The most compelling stories in sport, which now include Michelle Payne’s racing life, are framed by adversity. Payne is best known as the inspirational jockey who is the only woman to have won the Melbourne Cup. On that dizzying afternoon in November 2015, amid the elation of her victory in one of the world’s greatest horse races, she spoke out against “such a chauvinistic sport”.
Payne revealed that “a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off” before she responded with ringing defiance. Addressing all those “who think women aren’t good enough”, Payne said they “can get stuffed” and added: “It’s a very male‑dominated sport and people think we are not strong enough. [But] women can do anything and we can beat the world.”
The 31-year-old Payne will race at Royal Ascot next month and she is prepared to face controversy if, as is planned, she rides a rank outsider in the Derby two weeks on Saturday. Before then it seems appropriate to remember that Payne has overcome more than just inequity in racing. Her life has been studded with pain and loss. The youngest of 10 children, she was six months old when her mother was killed. A brother and a sister have also died. So there has been tragedy and depression, terrible injuries and enduring prejudice.
“Definitely,” Payne says. “Some of the things I’ve endured and come back from can’t be ignored. People were telling me: ‘You’re not strong enough.’ It’s laughable because they have no idea what you’ve been through or still go through to chase what you love.”
Payne is so composed I wonder if her “get stuffed” line might have been planned soon after she slipped off her victorious horse, Prince of Penzance, in Melbourne? “No, it was done spontaneously. It was totally off‑the‑cuff. But I’m really happy to have said it because there were lots of doubters and many people have said women jockeys aren’t good enough. After winning the greatest race in Australia it felt the perfect time to say it to them.”
She gave Prince of Penzance a beautiful ride but was her skill and conviction overshadowed by her admirable candour? “I hope it hasn’t been lost. A lot of people congratulated me on the ride. But many people doubt female riders because they say we’re not strong enough. There’s a hell of a lot more to riding than being strong. Getting a horse settled, staying composed, being patient, can mean a difference up to five lengths in a finish. They say it’s all down to strength but that’s complete bullshit. It really frustrates me.”
In one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other, Payne carried a searing belief that, even at 100-1, she and her horse would win. “I was very confident. Even though it seemed crazy I thought he had what it took and I had what it took. We did it. That’s what I like to portray to young people with dreams – if you work very hard and believe in yourself anything is possible.”
An obsession with racing has surged through Payne since she was a girl. She is animated when conveying how much she still loves racing horses, while now also training them, as her dreams grow even more daring. But it is salutary to remember how many dangerous falls she survived – the most recent of which cost her the chance to ride Prince of Penzance in last year’s Melbourne Cup.
Last May, as Payne recalls: “I had two winners and three seconds on my brother Patrick’s horses so we were having a great day [at Mildura]. But [racing another of Patrick’s horses called Dutch Courage] I hit the ground and was knocked out. I came to and remember being on the track tucked up in a little ball saying: ‘Something is wrong, I’m bleeding inside.’ It took them 45 minutes to get me on the stretcher in the foetal position. In the ambulance they gave me morphine and somehow stretched me out. I’d split my pancreas in half, lacerated my liver and stomach and fractured two vertebrae in my lower back. It was massive surgery and the first two weeks in hospital saw unbelievable pain.
“I was getting pressure from my family to retire but, eventually, I started feeling better. I won’t ride for much longer but I want to make that decision to retire myself. You can’t live your life worrying about what might happen. I could die in a car accident today.”
Payne had an even more psychologically testing injury in 2004 when, at Sandown in Australia, a fall resulted in bleeding on her brain. Payne was confused, depressed and out of racing for seven harrowing months. “For three months I was brain damaged. I couldn’t think like before and I was so scared. I didn’t know if I could go on living like that. But it helped that the doctors told me I’d get better and your brain is amazing. It can recover.”
There were other devastating falls in May and September 2012. “With the first I fractured five vertebrae and three ribs. For 30 seconds I couldn’t feel my legs. It must have shocked my spinal cord and that was very scary. I’d been back from that injury a month when I had another fall. I fractured the same three vertebrae on the other side of the spinal cord. I said to my dad in hospital: ‘Maybe God is trying to tell me something.’ I was thinking about retiring but, to my surprise, Dad said: ‘You don’t need to make a decision just yet.’ That night I thought: ‘Yeah, I’m not done with this yet.’ I made another comeback.
“Obviously, after all these falls, people were saying: ‘You’re crazy. What if you don’t recover from the next one?’ But I’m living an amazing life. Some of the things I experience is because of those risks and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The death of her mother, in a car accident, changed the course of Payne’s life but she explains how, just before her winning ride in Melbourne, she prayed to her mum. “I did, yeah. If I’m worried or need to settle my nerves I say a little prayer to her and my brother Michael who passed away when he was a baby. I was actually named after Michael because I was born on his birthday. Now I’ve started including Brigid [her sister and fellow jockey who was put into an induced coma after a bad fall and eventually died in 2007] in my prayers. She was doing what we all love and, thinking of them, my nerves go away. I feel they’re watching over me.”
Her brother Stevie, the second youngest in the family, has Down’s syndrome. But he was Prince of Penzance’s groom when his little sister won the Melbourne Cup. “I’d never seen Stephen have tears of joy before. He’s happy-go-lucky and that’s the very first time I’ve seen him so emotional.”
She and her brother are working on their new dream that she will become a successful trainer. “I had my first winner as a trainer, on a horse I also rode and he’s my star at the moment. He’s called Duke of Nottingham and the farm Stevie and I own together [in Ballarat] is called Nottingham Farm.
“I’m working my horses every day and absolutely loving it. I’m training seven horses but I’m looking to build to 16.
“There’s a very nice horse called Jukila and he belongs to Ernest and Ronda Clarke who are new into racing. They were inspired by my Melbourne Cup win and decided to invest in horses with me. So they bought this horse for me to train and I love him. He’s by Lucas Cranach, who ran third in the Melbourne Cup, and he’s progressing beautifully. I joke about it but I’m semi-serious. Jukila’s my Derby horse, my Melbourne Cup horse. You have to dream big and that’s what I love about the industry. Jukila is Aborigine for fun and the Clarkes are racing to have some fun. But Kaspersky was their first runner and I’m going to race him [in the Queen Anne Stakes] for Jane Chapple-Hyam at Ascot.”
Chapple-Hyam also trains Diore Lia – which might, amid a small furore, run in the Derby after a miserable debut at Epsom this month, finishing eighth of nine to record a lowly Racing Post rating of just 23.
Kaspersky, at least, has some potential and Payne says: “We’re excited. He ran fourth in an [Italian] Group One and he’s won Group Twos. We’d like to take him to the Emirates Stakes in Melbourne in November. But before Ascot I hope to come out for the Derby which would be an experience. I love to make the most of these opportunities.”
Confirming that the breeder Richard Aylward has approached her to ride the derided Diore Lia, who finished fifth in a field of eight at Lingfield last Friday in a failed attempt to inject some credibility into the filly’s Derby entry, Payne says: “I am interested but obviously I have to see how everything goes between now and then.”
Does she have any misgivings the horse might fall woefully short of Derby standards – especially when Epsom is such a tight track? “I haven’t watched her race so that’s something we have to have a look at.”
Payne has always harboured unlikely dreams. “There was an interview with me when I was nine years old. They showed it on the local news and I said: ‘I want to win the Melbourne Cup.’ My friends used to tease me and make fun of what I said. So, yeah, it was pretty funny I did win it in the end.”
On that unforgettable day she beat some outstanding jockeys, including Frankie Dettori into second place, so how did her male peers react? “They were fantastic. They see how hard I work and everybody knows how hard it is. I even had a lot of the guy jockeys say my win gave them hope.”
Has her landmark victory engendered change for women in racing? “Very slightly. The racing people in Australia have their minds set. It might slowly be changing but I wish it would change faster. We just have to continue working hard and proving ourselves. That why I spoke out and why I will continue.”
Are women jockeys undermined across the world? “Well, not in New Zealand. Women jockeys over there are doing fantastically. There are probably as many female as male jockeys in parts of New Zealand. In Australia there are four major races over the Flemington Carnival [which includes the Melbourne Cup every November] and women jockeys have won three of them – all on 100-1 shots – from about 30 rides. If that doesn’t say something for women then what does?”
On Friday, in Washington DC, Payne will be honoured at the Longines Ladies Awards – which celebrates women who have achieved consistently and made a significant contribution at the highest level within the equestrian world. This is the latest acknowledgement of Payne’s grit after decades of defiant striving.
It is little wonder that Rachel Griffiths, the Australian actor turned director, will make a feature film about Payne. “Initially I was very apprehensive about the film,” Payne says. “It’s overwhelming to have a movie made about you. You couldn’t imagine that in your wildest dreams. But I’ve had time to reflect and I’m very excited about it now.”
Payne still sounds smitten by training and riding horses – no matter the obstacles of her past or in the future. “You have to go through a lot of tough knockbacks in this industry and I’ve learned to swallow hard and move on. Just get over it and work towards the next Melbourne Cup or the next goal. I always believed I had the ability to be a great jockey. I was obsessed with it so I missed out on many things growing up. But I don’t regret that because to have a dream to get you out of bed every morning is very special. It’s what I love doing most.”