Michelle Payne: How Melbourne Cup winner went from tragedy to triumph

Story highlights

Michelle Payne first woman jockey to win Melbourne Cup

Won with 100-1 outsider Prince of Penzance

Australian lost mother at age of six months

Wants more women to follow her example

CNN  — 

Michelle Payne might have the Melbourne Cup locked up tight in the trophy cabinet – but the real fight to the finish is only just beginning.

The first woman jockey to win the $4.2 million “race that stops a nation” has come from nowhere to become a global superstar and is now leading the gallop for her fellow female riders.

Payne was outspoken in the aftermath of November’s victory in Australia’s biggest horse race, where she shocked the world by guiding 100-1 outsider Prince of Penzance to the trophy.

No sooner had she passed the winning post than she laid into those who had doubted her for not being a man, telling the chauvinists to “get stuffed.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 03:  Michelle Payne celebrates her winning ride on Prince Of Penzance with her sisters to win race 7 the Emirates Melbourne Cup on Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse on November 3, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
The female jockey blazing a trail
03:12 - Source: CNN

And why not? This year has been a stellar year for female jockeys with Lizzie Kelly the latest to triumph, becoming the first woman rider to win a Grade One jumps race in Britain after guiding Tea for Two home in the Kauto Star Novices Chase at Kempton.

Kelly’s victory followed the success of Irish Grand National victor Katie Walsh, and the all-women Shergar Cup-winning team of Hayley Turner, Sammy-Jo Bell and Emma-Jayne Wilson at Ascot in August.

“Being a female jockey is difficult,” Payne tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.

“In some ways it can be easier, because you get more publicity if you do well because you’re female in a male-dominated sport, but it’s always a battle.

“A lot of owners just feel that we’re not strong enough and that in the finish they’d rather have Damien Oliver than me.

“But my argument is that it’s not all about strength – it’s about keeping your balance, composure and getting the horse to run as fast as you can.

“I just hope we can continue to do well and prove people wrong.”

Family tragedy

Payne’s stunning victory was hailed a breakthrough for female jockeys in a sport dominated by men.

It wasn’t just the way she won but the way she had battled against all the odds to rewrite history.

Payne’s transition from the youngest of 10 children to one of the most successful women in the world of horse racing is remarkable given the hardship she endured in her early years.

She was just six months old when the first tragedy struck – her mother Mary was killed in a car accident, leaving her father Paddy to raise their considerable brood.

Mary was taking her children to school when her car was hit by another vehicle – she died instantly.

In 2007, tragedy struck again when older sister Brigid died after suffering an aneurysm and heart attack eight months after falling from her horse – she was 36.

The second death brought yet more pain and hardship – but Payne says the close nature of her family ensured they remained strong.

“I feel we’re pretty resilient because of my dad,” she says.

“He’s really led us to grow up tough, and we had to work pretty hard when we were growing up as young kids.

“From as young as I can remember, everyone had a job to do and chores to do, and at the time I think we probably thought we were a little hard done by.

“But the older we got and the more into being a jockey, I really appreciated dad teaching us a great work ethic because obviously as a jockey, you have to work really hard.

“I think dad conditioned us well for that and to life, so I’m very much appreciative of that and our upbringing, the older I got.”

Father’s influence

A horse trainer and a dairy farmer, Paddy kept his family together with the help of his older children and their love of horses.

Of the 10, eight went on to become professional jockeys – though Paddy was not one to push his children.

Rather, he was the man who Payne says helped “pull us all together and carry on with life.”

“He did find it hard at the start,” she says. “Dad said he lost a stone in weight and just couldn’t eat.

“It was a really tough time but he has a great attitude and a great outlook on life. He just pulled together and said that was one of those things that happens in life and you just have to carry on.

“He has been amazing. He’s always has a positive outlook on life. Obviously, you go through tough times and bad things happen and seeing what he had to go through and how he handled it was a great thing to see from a young age.

“It shows that whenever anything bad happened, you can get through it, to have faith in God, and believe good things will happen.”

Time to ride

After watching her older siblings ride, there was only one profession Payne ever wanted to pursue.

She started riding the family’s pony at the age of five, and began racing horses at 15 – the youngest age allowed.

She began to show glimpses of the potential which would transform her into one of Australian racing’s rising stars.

Not that it was all plain sailing – she suffered her fair share of injuries, not least a fractured skull, 10 fractured vertebrae, broken ribs and a dislocated ankle.

Even when her family pleaded with her to stop riding, she carried on, determined to become the best she could be.

“My first ride was a winner for my dad, which was completely out of the blue,” she recalls.

“The horse wasn’t anything special, but that day he stepped up and won, and it was a dream come true to win my first race, especially for my dad on my home track.

“I think I was always going to carry on and keep going professionally. It was my passion and it’s what I love and it’s not a job to me, it’s just something I love doing.

“Obviously there are hard things about it, but I think that I’m lucky to have found a job that’s a passion, rather than feeling like I’m going to work.”

Stevie’s smile

One of the most enjoyable parts of Payne’s work is being able to work with her brother Stevie, who has Down syndrome.

The two youngest of the family, they were inseparable during their youth, with Payne helping Stevie with his speech, which he often found difficult.

“Stevie was not treated any different,” she says.

“He was a little bit hard to understand when he was younger, he didn’t speak very clearly and I was his translator for a fair while in his life but because he was treated as normal, he learned to speak a lot clearer.

“He had to work and he was always great with the horses and he would ride when he could and he’s actually a great rider and just great with horses, very natural and very relaxed and horses respond well to him.”

Stevie has carved out his own career in racing and has spent the past eight years working for trainer Darren Weir.

As a strapper, he’s taken care of a number of Group One winners and was an integral part of his sister’s team at the 2015 Melbourne Cup.

“Stevie and I have always been together so I couldn’t imagine him not being in my life,” Payne adds.

“He’s a huge part of it. I say to so many people that he’s such a blessing for our family, and you only have to spend time with him to know what we mean by that.

“Just to see his smile, it’s infectious. You can’t help but smile when you see him smile.”

That smile was on full show at Flemington on November 3, when Stevie’s sister stunned the watching world.

Payne had been confident that her horse was more than capable of being competitive on the day but had not considered the possibility of winning.

It was only when she got to within 600 meters of the line that she began to believe this could be her chance.

Settled into the best position possible and traveling at a speed and rhythm which allowed the horse to find its optimal level of breathing, she suddenly began to think “Oh my god, this horse could win the Melbourne Cup right now.”

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.

“I put my head down and I was just shaking my head – I was in shock and I couldn’t pat him enough.

“I was just so grateful for what he did for me and all he gave and just what an incredible horse he is.

“Not only has he won the Melbourne Cup but he’s come through four surgeries to get there and he’s just so tough.”

Life has not been the same since.

Fame game

Payne is now the golden girl of Australian racing – her face is on television screens across the world and adorning magazines and websites.

She’s been on television chat shows, walked down red carpets and posed for thousands of photographers hoping to get that perfect shot.

That finishing line wasn’t just the winning post – it was the portal to a different life and one that she hopes many other women will experience in their lifetime.

“I think it’s sinking in,” she says.

“A lot of people come up to me and it’s just so incredible because they say it gives them inspiration – not just in sporting events but in every walk of life.

“There are mothers with young children, people that are in university and people with dreams to follow different career paths, so it’s just so incredible to be that person, to give people that inspiration.

“I feel so lucky and yeah, it just makes me feel so happy.”

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