After fracturing nine of her vertebrae in two horror falls in 2012 Michelle Payne was, understandably, ready to give up her career as a jockey.
But like she has done so many times before, she picked herself up, dusted herself off and recovered with incredible resilience.
On Tuesday, she achieved the pinnacle of her sport, winning the Melbourne Cup on the back of $100-1 long-shot Prince of Penzance, ahead of English stayer Max Dynamite ($13) by half a length, with Australian weight-for-age star Criterion ($19) over a length back in third place.
Payne is no stranger to adversity. As an apprentice jockey in 2004 she fell during a race at Sandown in Melbourne and suffered a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain.
In the same year, she broke her wrist in a separate fall and had to apply for a three-month extension to her apprenticeship in order to qualify as a jockey.
But she recovered from that setback and slowly began to establish herself as one of Australia’s top jockeys, winning her first Group One race in 2009. She competed in her first Melbourne Cup that same year, finishing 16th on Bart Cummings’ horse Allez Wonder.
Speaking to Channel 7’s Bruce McAvaney in the aftermath of her historic Melbourne Cup victory on Tuesday, the 30-year-old recounted the moment in 2012 she thought her career was over.
“I had two falls in a year, fractured nine vertebrae all up, and I came home and said to my dad ‘I think that’s me done’,” she said.
But her father – Ballarat horse trainer Paddy Payne – convinced her to keep going.
Michelle said she found his advice strange; her father and siblings had earlier told her to consider retirement.
“Two or three years ago, I think, he said, ‘Don’t panic, you’ve got plenty of time to think about it, just relax’, which was surprising because he wanted me to retire before that. But I think he likes watching me ride.”
In 2013, she told Fairfax that her racing-mad siblings – two of whom are married to fellow Cup-winning jockeys Kerrin McEvoy and Brett Prebble – had also encouraged her to quit.
“(I said), ‘You’re not telling your husband to give up’. Cathy’s not telling Kerrin (McEvoy) to give up, Maree’s not telling Brett (Prebble) to give up. I’m at no more risk than them,” she said.
“They said, ‘Yeah, but you seem to be a bit more unlucky than them’.”
One should forgive her family for being apprehensive. Michelle’s oldest sister Brigid died from a heart attack in 2007, six months after a fall during trackwork that left her in an induced coma.
The Cup-winning jockey is the youngest of 11 children, raised by their father after mum Mary died in a car accident when Michelle was six months old.
The next youngest Payne sibling, Stevie, works as a strapper for Prince of Penzance’s trainer Darren Weir. He was trackside to cheer on his little sister to victory.
Michelle said Stevie gave her a very different piece of advice before the race: “I’ve got my money on him so you’d better win.”
Payne tells doubters to ‘get stuffed’
In the aftermath of the ‘race that stops a nation’, Payne took a swipe at people who doubted her abilities because of her gender, including “some of the owners”.
But she was full of praise for those who gave her the opportunity to ride into the history books.
“To think that Darren Weir has given me a go and it’s such a chauvinistic sport – I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off and (owner) John Richards and Darren stuck strongly with me,” she said.
“I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win the Melbourne Cup.
“I can’t say how grateful I am to them. I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we just beat the world.”
Payne said she had dreamt of Melbourne Cup victory since she was five years old.
“There is an interview from my school friends, they were teasing me about, when I was about seven and I said, ‘I’m going to win the Melbourne Cup’. They always give me a bit of grief about it and I can’t believe we’ve done it.”
Dream come true for Michelle’s brother ‘Stevie’ the strapper
When Michelle Payne rode rank outsider Prince of Penzance to victory ahead of Max Dynamite and Criterion on Tuesday, her brother Steven was jubilant, summing up his sister’s efforts as “10 out of 10”.
It is the strapper’s first time working on the biggest day in Australian racing and he was ecstatic that his sister and the stable he works for were taking home the silverware.
“Thank you very much, everybody. To all of the crowd today at the races. I hope you have a great night. Thank you very much.”
Steven’s involvement in the Melbourne Cup continues a rich family tradition in the sport – eight of his nine siblings have worked as jockeys.
The strapper, who has Down syndrome, was responsible for drawing Prince of Penzance’s number one barrier, and correctly predicted the horse would be “in front at 200 metres [to go]”.
“It was a dream come true to pick barrier one. [I’m] so excited that I could get the job done for him today,” Michelle said of “Stevie” during her victory speech.
Before the race, Michelle said her brother had challenged some of the stigma associated with Down syndrome.
“I think it’s great for other people with Down syndrome – to see how capable they can be in normal life,” she said.
Trainer Darren Weir has employed Payne at his Forest Lodge stable in Ballarat for close to a decade.
It is a tough line of work, with early starts, long hours and horses that can sometimes be unpredictable and dangerous.
“He can follow the work sheet, he can saddle them up, he can swim them, hose them, and he’s got a great rapport with horses,” Weir said ahead of the race.
“He’s really enjoyable to have around, and I think it’s important for those sorts of kids to get a go at something, and if they get a go they reward you.”
“They’ve got a great history in racing and they’re all terrific horse people and Stevie is no different,” Weir said of the Payne family.
– with ABC