What becomes clear in a conversation with Michelle Payne is that her elfin features belie an indestructible spirit. Whether it is the fact that she grew up the youngest of 10 children, in the dusty depths of backcountry Australia, or that her mother Mary died in a car accident when she was six months old, she rails against the thought of being underestimated. This would explain why, within minutes of winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup on 100-1 shot Prince of Penzance, she electrified the Flemington crowd all over again by telling anybody belittling female jockeys to “get stuffed”.
It was, she reflects, a spontaneous outburst, but it served as powerful statement against the ingrained chauvinism of her sport. “I wanted to make sure I got it right, to thank everyone who had got me there,” she says. “As for telling everybody to get stuffed, that was just something that came out at the time. But it’s nothing I regret. I just hope that, as women, we can continue to be recognised as a force rather than a hindrance. Watching female jockeys ride, the good ones are so beautifully balanced, I can’t understand how trainers don’t see that. I felt that the moment of winning our greatest race was a time to speak up.”
In an instant, Payne was seized upon as a feminist icon. A modest girl from Ballarat was thrown headlong into a media maelstrom that brought introductions to Roger Federer – the thrill of a lifetime, given that her late mother was Swiss – and Usain Bolt. Rachel Griffiths, the star of Muriel’s Wedding, pursued her for half a day around Sydney’s Randwick racecourse to explain that she wanted to make a film of her life as inspiration to her own two daughters. Even Payne’s appearance at Royal Ascot on Tuesday, aboard outsider Kaspersky in the Queen Anne Stakes, is being billed in Australia as a summit between Her Majesty and the ‘Queen of the Turf’.
The intensity of the spotlight drained her after a while. When she was badly hurt in a fall last year, requiring emergency surgery for a torn pancreas, she regarded her convalescence in hospital as a perverse form of relief. “My sisters took my phone off me for a week, and I could just lie there in peace,” she says. “Even though I was in absolute agony, it was refreshing being on my own, with no responsibilities. Keeping everyone happy was wearing me out.”
Here in a quiet corner of Palace House in Newmarket, one can sense that she relishes the relative anonymity. She is working here with Australian trainer Jane Chapple-Hyam and adores the gentle pace of life in this cradle of thoroughbred racing, where the horse-to-human ratio is roughly one in five. “I love the way everything is done, with the trackwork in the mornings. It’s very thorough and slow, the horses get to walk. At home, it’s very hustle-bustle, all a bit rushed. It’s what I’m trying to do with my own training, to slow everything down.”
Payne is adamant that training is her natural calling once she hangs up her silks, possibly by the end of next year. The racing gene is planted deep within her, as the daughter of Paddy Payne, a fine jockey in his day. So, too, is a streak of fierce paternal resilience. Where her only thought, having once fractured her skull so badly that she required lengthy rehabilitation to restore basic cognitive functions, was to leap straight back in the saddle, her father’s first words upon entering hospital after a heart attack were to order a stout and lemonade.
Life’s too short to be sitting around doing the same thing all the time
“My dad would always say to us that there’s not much between a good female jockey and a male jockey,” she says. “Hearing those words, it made me believe it. I was very keen from when I was five years old – all I wanted to do was ride. I was a bit of a pest to him, but that’s what you do when you’re young and passionate.”
Theirs is a profound and powerful connection, but it became frayed when she announced at 16 that she was forsaking Ballarat for the bright lights of Melbourne to pursue her apprenticeship. For months, the two were effectively estranged. “It was a tough time, as we had been close for as long as I remember. I was always his little girl, but I had visions and dreams and I wanted to fulfil them. It was very hard for him. He had enjoyed a house full of kids and laughter, and then all of a sudden it was quiet. But I had strong will and I didn’t think he was being fair. Thankfully, time heals all wounds.”
Payne is fond of depicting how, when Prince of Penzance made his exhilarating final surge to win the ‘race that stops a nation’, she was being watched over by the mother she never knew. What is extraordinary about the Paynes is how stoically they rallied from a loss so shattering, to the point where, in a family with little money and devoid of its matriarch, Michelle rarely felt she wanted for much. She learned the essentials of posture on Paddy’s Shetland pony and watched films about Phar Lap, Australia’s most cherished horse, to her heart’s content. Her elder sister Therese took over parental duties to the extent where she would give her a card on Mother’s Day.
“I feel so grateful to my sisters and brothers,” she says. “They are why I take my position as a role model to young female jockeys so seriously, because they showed me a way of getting on with things. When my dad got sick and had a triple bypass, it put the importance of family into perspective. I was so focused on looking after him, being with him. For the first time in my life, racing was kind of irrelevant. It reminded me that I could have a career and still think about other things.”
True to her word, she is perpetually seeking enriching experiences beyond the racing bubble. Recently she travelled to Rwanda, living among the victims of the 1994 genocide and pledging to help one teenage boy, Elias, to set up his own farm. “I was hoping it would be a success, although it went a bit pear-shaped. But at least we had a go together. Elias is back at university now and has found another sponsor. My family thought I was a bit crazy even for trying, but it seemed a great opportunity. Life’s too short to be sitting around doing the same thing all the time.”
What strikes most about Payne is the absence of the slightest affectation. At Royal Ascot, with its unbending edicts on dress and decorum, she arrives like an invigorating summer breeze. Close by, as ever, will be her brother Stevie, who has Down’s Syndrome and grooms each of her horses with the utmost care and attention. Together, they have become quite the rock-star duo. “He just makes you laugh,” she says, smiling. “Everything is so uncomplicated.” Which, after all that Payne has squeezed into her short but remarkable life, is exactly how she likes it.