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Meet the prince and princess of Penzance

There was more than one barrier broken at this year's Melbourne Cup.
Melbourne Cup winner Michelle Payne with her brother Steven Payne

Watching this year’s Melbourne Cup race was like watching something straight out of Hollywood. Not only was winning jockey Michelle Payne the first ever female to win the race, she was supported by her brother Stevie, who was her horse’s strapper.

As a strapper, Stevie, who has Down syndrome, looks after feeding and grooming horses, plus saddling them for the track. He was at his sister’s side before the race, leading her onto the stage for Saturday night’s barrier draw and onto the track on her horse, Prince Of Penzance. He then had the covetable role of leading her back into the winner’s stall.

“Great win, great ride, ten out of ten,” Stevie said of his sister’s win.

Stevie is considered one of the most reliable strappers in the business. He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he went to collect his Tommy Woodcock trophy for being the winning strapper.

“Thank you very much, everybody,” an elated Steven said, as he held the trophy aloft. “To all of the crowd today at the races, I hope you have a great night. Thank you very much.”

Stevie picks his sister’s barrier for the Melbourne Cup.

Michelle and Stevie are very close – not only do they work together, they also live together.

“She’s very clean and tidy and we talk about horses a little bit,” Stevie said of home life. “We’ve got a few down in the paddock and we’re hoping to get them going. But I liked seeing her win the Melbourne Cup.”

Michelle and Stevie come from a family with a long history in Australian horse racing. Of the nine Payne siblings, eight have ridden as jockeys.

It has been a tough journey for Michelle to this high point in her career. Her mother, Mary, died in a car crash when she was six months old, and her eldest sister, Brigid, suffered a fatal brain aneurism.

Michelle won her first Group One race, the Toorak Handicap, in October last year.

Female jockeys still struggle in the male-dominated industry, so Michelle says she has to convince owners and trainers that physical strength is not necessarily the way to bring out the best in a horse.

Watch Michelle win the Melbourne Cup

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“I think, on the right horse, I’m better than a male jockey,” she told The Australian Women’s Weekly. “Some horses have to be made to go because they’re lazy – that would suit a male jockey. But others, especially fillies and mares, resent it if you hit them too hard and go worse.”

The hardest part of Michelle’s job, mentally and physically, is keeping her weight down.

“You have to put up with people asking you every day,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl.”

For one Caulfield Cup, she had to lose two kilograms in a week. She even cuts out all fluid before a race.

In 2004, Michelle’s father begged her to give up racing when she had a fall at Sandown Park Racecourse, in Melbourne, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain.

Yet, after months of crying herself to sleep, fearing she wouldn’t be able to ride again, the girl who once slept holding her father’s hand so he wouldn’t forget to take her riding in the morning climbed back into the saddle.

Michelle is not afraid because she believes her mother is watching over her. “She’s my guardian angel,” she says. “I think if I have a close call, she’s up there helping me out.”

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