Michelle Payne and her brother Stevie reflect on a life of tragedy to movie stardom

''Life's not always easy for anyone, but you've got to persist and work through it. I think that's an important message.''
Michelle Payne

As kids, Michelle Payne and her brother Stevie used to wake up early every morning, jump out of the bed they top-and-tailed in, and put on Phar Lap, the 1983 movie about Australasia’s most famous racehorse.

Michelle reckons they watched it hundreds of times and could probably still recite the film from start to finish.

The 11th and youngest child of Ballarat horse trainer Paddy Payne, Michelle was only five years old back then, but already fixed on a dream: to ride the winning horse in the Melbourne Cup.

On a blue-sky day some 25 years later, when Michelle found herself in the mounting yard at Flemington with thoroughbred Prince of Penzance and Stevie as her strapper, about to tackle the world’s toughest two-mile race, she had to marvel at life’s machinations.

“I was like, here we are, the two little kids,” says Michelle.

“I remember just looking down at Stevie, shaking my head and smiling. Who would have thought all those years ago watching Phar Lap that we’d be here about to race in the biggest race together? That was so special.”

As she headed off, Stevie told her, “Don’t get beat. I’ve got my money on you.”

Loaded into barrier one, she said a silent prayer to her mother, who was killed in a car crash when Michelle was a baby, and to sister Brigid, a fellow jockey who had died after a fall eight years earlier.

She could feel them with her. And then they were off.

A 100-to-one outsider, Prince of Penzance thundered across the finish line and into the history books – and Michelle, at 30, became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

Seared into Michelle’s memory is Stevie leading her and the horse back to the scales.

“That was just a dream come true,” she says. “It didn’t even seem like real life.”

It was a true Hollywood moment – something clearly not lost on the millions watching, or the dozens of filmmakers who approached Michelle after the Cup win, intrigued by the compelling tale of a woman who weathered adversity to emerge triumphant, fortified by the love of her family.

Michelle’s extraordinary story has made it to the big screen in Rachel Griffiths’ directorial debut, Ride Like a Girl, with Teresa Palmer as Michelle, Sam Neill as New Zealand-born Paddy, and Stevie as himself.

Stevie, who has Down syndrome, was dead keen to play the part.

“They asked me and I wouldn’t say no,” says the 36-year-old, “because that’s me – I don’t say no to anything!”

For Michelle, Stevie’s brush with movie stardom is the best bit – and his involvement has helped ease some of the wariness among the siblings.

“I think people will fall in love with him,” says Michelle.

“It’s important for people to see how capable and smart [those with Down syndrome are] and how much responsibility they can take on if they’re given it.”

Although Michelle describes the feel-good film as “excellent” and the family as excited, Michelle admits she probably would have denied permission if she could have.

Instead, she took the opportunity to have a say in the script. At her request, the film doesn’t include her mother’s car accident – “I didn’t think anyone needed to relive that” – and Brigid’s death is dealt with only briefly.

Still, Michelle was reduced to tears four or five times.

“It touches on some moments that were really hard that you’ve half-forgotten or put at the back of your mind,” she says.

“It was tough to go over it again, but it’s also nice to know that you’ve got through that. Life’s not always easy for anyone, but you’ve got to persist and work through it. I think that’s an important message.”

Michelle Payne is resilience personified – a quality that was ingrained here, in her childhood home, a 1970s ranch-style brick house surrounded by lush-green horse paddocks, right next to the Ballarat Racecourse.

This morning, before The Australian Women’s Weekly’s arrival, Michelle is up with the horses at 4.30 on her neighbouring property.

She arrives at her dad’s place ruddy-faced in her dusty black Porsche Cayenne, still in her mud-spattered training gear, wearing an ear-warming headband and a plait down her back.

She eats two bowls of her manager’s broccoli soup as we chat at the dining table, amid baby photos of Stevie and Brigid, and a portrait of her mum, Rosa Mary, with the cricket playing on a giant TV in the corner.

It’s a drizzly winter day but Paddy reckons it’s too expensive to use the central heating, so he relies on a wood stove in the chilly slate-floored kitchen.

These days the whole clan only descends at Christmas; it’s just Paddy and Stevie living in the five-bedroom home, and it’s strewn with groceries, dirty dishes and power tools, which is why Michelle’s sister Bernadette is here to do an emergency clean-up.

Teeming with seven girls and three boys, it would have been a far more chaotic scene three decades ago.

Back then it was a muddy mad house of squabbling kids and horses grazing in the backyard, and even the little ones had their jobs to do.

Teresa Palmer and Sam Neill in Ride Like a Girl.

On September 29, 1985, Michelle was the 11th child to be born in 16 years to devout Catholics Paddy and Rosa Mary, three years after they migrated from New Zealand.

They named their seventh girl in honour of Michael, the son who arrived years earlier – also on September 29, between Margaret and Andrew – and died three days later with a hole in his heart.

Michelle was just six months old when her mum took the older kids to school one morning and another car collided with theirs on the way. Suddenly, Paddy was a single parent of 10.

His in-laws offered to take a few kids each, but he was adamant they stay together.

Just 15, Therese took over the cooking and cleaning, while 11-year-old Bernadette fed baby Michelle overnight.

Not given to self-pity, Paddy set his grief aside and got on with it. He’d already lost a baby and dealt with Stevie’s diagnosis.

“You learn to take life as it comes,” says 83-year-old Paddy.

“The grief part, I didn’t have much time to think about that. I had to concentrate on life as it was.”

Michelle, though, remembers calling for her mum from the front verandah whenever she was sad as a little girl – until she realised her mother was never coming back.

She recalls Paddy telling her every day how lovely her mother was “and how he wished he’d told her he loved her more”.

Michelle still thinks about her mum and senses her “ever-present spiritual love”.

Says Michelle, “I feel like she’s looking after me.”

The two youngest, Michelle and Stevie were “the little kids”, always together, playing cards or crawling on the floor as pretend horses when Andrew and Patrick rode them in a mock Cox Plate.

“Stevie was always just treated the same, but he was smart, because if we were naughty, he knew he’d get out of trouble if he said he was Down syndrome,” she says, laughing.

“He’d be like, ‘I didn’t know, I’m Down syndrome!’ I didn’t need to be protective. Everyone loved him. He could do anything … He is so funny and so smart. He’s absolutely a blessing.”

Stevie and Michelle as children.

The dual religions of the Payne family, it seems, are Catholicism and horse racing.

Eight of the kids became jockeys (Stevie is a strapper and Margaret an accountant), and Michelle grew up wanting to be better than all of them.

Somehow, despite the merciless teasing from her siblings, “Stinky”, as she was known, always had an unshakable belief in herself.

“I guess I was brought up strong mentally,” she says, “to think I could do it.”

Michelle credits her hardscrabble upbringing for her work ethic and abiding optimism: “I think I have a lot of faith in life, like it’ll work out, there’s no point worrying about it.”

From the age of four, Michelle would pester her dad to go riding.

“She used to come into my bed and go to sleep holding my hand,” recalls Paddy, “so I’d take her out in the morning.” He’d be gone by 4am and Michelle would wake up furious.

After leaving college, Michelle started riding professionally at 15 and had her first win in Ballarat on Paddy’s horse Reigning.

A year later, Paddy was livid when Michelle (or “Little Girl”, as he called her) left home to move to Melbourne.

“She was the last one and I needed her,” explains Paddy. “Needed her to ride [trackwork] and she didn’t want to.”

The way Michelle tells it, he was sad to see his baby go.

“Stevie was still here but it was quiet,” she says. “That would be hard after a full house. It would have been lonely.”

After being so close, the two were estranged for more than a year, which was heartbreaking, but both were stubborn.

Meanwhile, Michelle threw herself into racing life, copping the 3am wake-ups and punishing weight restrictions (learning to sweat off 3kg in 18 hours, for example, with the help of cling wrap), not to mention the infuriating double standards.

When she won the Cup and told the chauvinistic naysayers they could “get stuffed” in her post-race speech, she was venting 15 years’ worth of frustration.

“[The sexism] was just always in the back of your mind,” she says.

“‘Oh, we’ll put a bloke on – they won’t make a mistake next time.’ And then the bloke would make a mistake – ‘Oh, he was unlucky.’ Or something like that. Always. It was just like, are you joking?”

Michelle with dad Paddy and brother Stevie.

Michelle has also had to contend with a catalogue of life-threatening injuries.

All up she has suffered eight serious falls and 16 broken bones.

It took her four years to recover after a freak fall from Vladivostok in 2004 that left her with a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain, and had her family urging her to give the sport away.

Six months after her Cup win, in May 2016, she suffered her worst fall yet, when she came off Dutch Courage in Mildura and the mare stepped on Michelle’s stomach, fracturing three vertebrae, lacerating her liver and splitting her pancreas. And yet, despite her doctors’ warnings, Michelle is still in the saddle.

Even Brigid’s death in 2007 – after a seizure following a fall from a horse – didn’t deter her.

It probably spurred me on more,” Michelle says.

“It made me think, live your life and don’t hold back, because you only get one chance at it. Life’s way too short to not do something because you’re scared.”

Her courage paid off, of course, with the realisation of her wildest dream, but what comes after that?

“I was a bit lost for a while,” admits Michelle.

“I didn’t know what to do.”

Fame opened up opportunities – she met Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla, for example – but it also became a daily hindrance, being stopped for selfies and having strangers show up on her doorstep.

Her profile has also made her a bigger target.

She made headlines in 2017 when she received a one-month racing ban for taking the appetite suppressant Phentermine, and reporters were climbing her fence for comment earlier this year when Prince of Penzance trainer Darren Weir was banned for four years for having taser-like devices in his possession.

Michelle dismisses both incidents.

“It wasn’t anything but I knew they’d blow it into something big,” says Michelle, referring to the drug test.

“I should have been more thorough. There’s a certain period of time [before races] you’re allowed to take [appetite suppressants] … but it’s probably just best not to take them anyway.”

As for Weir, Michelle has not worked with him for years, and never saw any illegal activity when she did, she says.

Perhaps eager to change the subject, Paddy pipes up from the blanket-covered couch by the heater.

“I wonder how long it’ll be before the next girl wins the Melbourne Cup?” he muses at top volume.

“There are a lot more girls now having a go.”

“And more getting a go, which is the main thing,” Michelle corrects him.

Six years ago, Michelle and Stevie bought the 40-acre property next door together and she has started a training centre there, with five female workers plus Stevie.

“He’s a ladies’ man,” she jokes. “He doesn’t complain.”

Women, she says, change the atmosphere of the place.

“I like that soft approach,” says Michelle.

“The horse still has to respect you or they walk all over you, but the horses just love the affection that’s around the stables. Everyone will stop and give a horse a pat – ‘Oh, I love this horse’ – whereas most blokes will just get on with their job.”

That softness is the point of difference for a lot of female jockeys.

“There are more ways to get the best out of a horse than brute strength or standing over them,” she says. “If you can get a horse to try for you, they’ll give you everything.”

Before she retires in the next year or two, Michelle wants to ride another Group One winner, but then her focus will turn to training and creating a family of her own.

Hoping for four children – a large brood by today’s, if not the Paynes’, standards – she’s aware that the breeding programme has to start soon.

She has been seeing an English trainer and “couldn’t be happier”, but the relationship is young.

“We don’t want to put too much pressure on it just yet!” she adds, laughing.

Stevie, too, will always be close by.

“That goes without saying,” she says. “Everybody would take care of Stevie if they had to.”

As Michelle has said, the Paynes might not be the most effusive family, but they never need question their love for each other: “We just know.”

Minutes later Stevie arrives home from the local hospital, where he volunteers at the cafeteria two days a week, sings in the choir and plays in the netball team.

Asked how his little sister’s biopic stacks up against Phar Lap – the film that apparently warranted 500 viewings in the family living room – Stevie doesn’t miss a beat.

“This one,” he says, “is better.”

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