Until a few weeks ago, not many people outside Australian racing circles had heard of Michelle Payne. Then, on November 3, she and her six-year-old gelding Prince of Penzance won the Melbourne Cup, one of the world’s biggest — and richest — racing events. She was the first female jockey to win the race, and one of only four to have competed in its 155-year history.
Immediately after her win, with the nation still glued to their television screens, the 30-year-old cut past the usual post-victory banalities and went straight to the point: horseracing, she said, was “such a chauvinistic sport. Some of the owners were keen to kick me off.” After thanking Prince of Penzance’s co-owner John Richards and trainer Darren Weir for sticking by her, she added: “I just wanted to say to everyone else that they can get stuffed, because they think women aren’t strong enough but we just beat the world.”
In Sydney a week later, Payne is about to be whisked off in a silver Jaguar to meet Prince Charles and other dignitaries at a drinks reception. But, despite the pomp and glamour she now finds herself surrounded by, this is not a woman to be dazzled by occasion. Clutching a gift for the prince in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, she offers a cheery smile as we meet at the luggage chute at Sydney airport. This friendly manner is at odds with her style of racing, described by commentators as combining utter determination with controlled aggression. “I think my victory happened for a reason,” she says. “It has given women hope in some regard, and hopefully it will help change people’s mindsets. People think [women] are not strong enough [but] it’s not all about strength. There is so much more involved: getting the horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you — it’s being patient.”
Horseracing is one of the few sports where women and men compete against one another. Female jockeys first began to race competitively against their male counterparts in the US in the late 1960s, and in Australia, the UK and elsewhere in the 1970s. Interest in the sport among women is flourishing in Australia. The state of Victoria reports that more than half of its first- and second-year apprentice jockeys are female. But at the elite level, according to the Australia Jockeys’ Association, men still outnumber women by three to one.
Payne says women have to work much harder than men to persuade owners and trainers to put them on the best horses in the biggest races. “It is obviously very frustrating when you are trying your best,” says Payne. “Sometimes the guys might do a better job but there are cases when we do a better job than them.”
Gender politics is a hot topic in Australia, particularly after then prime minister Julia Gillard’s parliamentary speech in 2012 accusing then opposition leader Tony Abbott of misogyny. Payne’s critics have questioned the etiquette of raising the issue of gender on the winners’ podium, pointing out that competition among jockeys is intense and can lead to men losing rides they initially thought they had secured for big races. But others have praised her for using her victory to campaign for a change in attitudes.
“It just breaks down the barriers for women a little,” says Sheila Laxon, the first woman to train a Melbourne Cup-winning horse, Ethereal, in 2001. “A lot of owners are reluctant to put girls on.” She says there is always the possibility owners will remove a horse from a trainer who is seen to give too many rides to a female jockey. Payne says she is not asking for an easier path than men when it comes to being given the best rides, but for men and women to be given an equal chance. “A lot of younger girls come into the industry thinking it looks easy. They have to understand it is not,” she says. “You have to work very hard but if you are prepared to do that, it can be really rewarding and you can be as good as the guys.”
She acknowledges progress has been made in terms of investing in facilities for female jockeys. Racing Victoria, the country’s main thoroughbred racing authority, has invited her to discuss what can be done to improve the situation for female riders. It is planning to remove the use of “Ms” or “Mrs” for female jockeys in race programmes (male riders receive no honorific). They are also considering a mentoring system to help young female jockeys. “I would love to do that,” Payne says. “If I’d had someone to help me from the start, it would have been a lot easier… especially because you have to train differently from the guys.”
Payne was born into a family steeped in horseracing. Her father Paddy is a trainer and seven of her nine siblings are jockeys. She began dreaming of winning the Melbourne Cup from the age of five. “My dad just threw me in the deep end,” she says. “I had some scary falls to start with but that taught me what not to do.”
When she was six months old her mother was killed in a car crash, leaving her father to bring up 10 children and keep the family business going. Her sister Margaret, the only sibling not to go into horseracing, says: “Michelle was the youngest and she was always discarded and left out to some extent. I think this made her really determined.” Payne believes her mother’s death made her withdraw a little and become a deeper thinker. “Maybe this has helped me work on techniques and just have confidence in myself.”
She won a professional race at the first time of trying when she was 15, and left school to pursue racing as a career. She says the toughest thing has been the physical work to build strength. “There are some girls who are super athletic… but I’m not.”
She is very close to her brother Stevie, who has Down’s syndrome. He works as a “strapper” in Prince of Penzance’s stables and the two shared a big hug on the track after her win. “Stevie is just treated as normal, and he is normal, but a lot of people with Down’s syndrome are not treated as normal,” she says. “So many people with experience of Down’s syndrome have told me how happy [the picture of Stevie after the race] made them and how much hope it gave them.”
Over the past 15 years Payne has enjoyed phenomenal success, winning several group one races and prize money worth about A$25m to date. Her partnership with Darren Weir, who lobbied for her to retain her ride in this year’s Melbourne Cup despite grumbling from some owners, has been a factor in her success.
Robert McClure, one owner who has employed Payne as a jockey, says: “She is meticulous in preparation, spends a lot of time with the horses to build a special bond and gives as good as she gets on the track.” Though she has been suspended from time to time for careless riding, he says: “I think there is an element of her trying to prove herself.”
Payne has suffered several serious injuries from falls. In 2004 she fractured her skull, causing bruising on the brain, and in 2012 she broke her back, which led her to consider retirement. She cites Bev Buckingham, the first female jockey to win 1,000 races in the southern hemisphere, as a source of inspiration. Buckingham broke her neck in a fall in 1998 and was confined to a wheelchair but regained the ability to walk. Once Payne had recovered, she decided to carry on. “I didn’t think I’d reached my peak,” she says, “and thought I could still be a better jockey. I didn’t want to give it away without giving it my absolute best.”
She says it’s still too early to make a decision about the future. She plans to race at Royal Ascot next year and would love to ride again in Ireland. She is also applying for a training licence, signalling her intention to stay within a sport that is opening up for women. “I feel like I have an opportunity to be a good role model for younger people coming through, not just jockeys but anybody in life. My advice is don’t focus on the negative and if something bad happens don’t be all ‘poor me’. Use it as a positive and work through it.”
Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Australia and Pacific Islands correspondent
Photographs: Shara Henderson; Getty; AAP