‘Ride Like a Girl’: The Making of a Champion

Ride Like a Girl (2019), tells the true story of Michelle Payne (played by Teresa Palmer) the first, and only, woman jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in its 160-year history. It was directed by Australian actress Rachel Griffiths, who also co-produced it with Richard Keddie and Susie Montague, with a script by Elise McCredie.

There were 100,000 people at the 2015 Cup, where the Japanese entrant Fame Game had been the favourite. Payne was also competing against her own family members. Her sister Maree’s husband, Brent Prebble, was riding Bondi Beach and her sister Cathy’s husband, Kerrin McEvoy, was riding Excess Knowledge.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Michelle Payne had been nearly killed by a fall, riding at Sandown in 2001, but ignoring medical advice she continued to compete. In 2013, she discovered a six-year-old gelding thoroughbred, trained by Darren Weir, named Prince of Penzance, who, due to accidents and illness, had pretty much been written off. Together, this unlikely and damaged duo overcame odds of 100-1 to win one of the most prestigious races in the world. Out of the twenty-four horses racing, only one, Sertorius, had longer odds.

Ride Like a Girl is an inspiring story about an authentic champion. It is rendered faithfully in this film adaptation, and is likely destined, in the tradition of Phar Lap, to become an Australian classic. Richard Keddie, known for his television biopics on Bob Hawke and John Curtin, said he wanted the film to have “that old-fashioned, matinee feel”.

It felt pretty good to wake up on the Wednesday morning knowing there was a little Melbourne Cup next to the salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table.
—Michelle Payne

When she was five years old, and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Michelle Payne said, “I just want to win the Melbourne Cup.” Her parents had earlier lost a child, Michael, who had died from a hole in the heart three days after he was born. When Michelle arrived, seven years later, in 1985, on Michael’s birthday, September 29, she was named in memory of him. Michael and Michelle mean “gift from God”.

Michelle’s mother Mary was killed in a car crash when Michelle was six months old, and the ten Payne children, Brigid, Therese, Maree, Bernadette, Patrick, Margaret, Andrew, Cathy, Stephen and Michelle, were raised solely by their father, Paddy (played in the film by Sam Neill).

Coming from three generations of horse trainers, she grew up with horses: “Horses were part of us and being with them was as natural as breathing.” With her brother Stevie, who was born with Down syndrome, and also had a gift for understanding horses, she said, as children, they watched the movie Phar Lap hundreds of times. Stevie plays himself in Ride Like a Girl and is a seamless and natural actor.

The Payne family originated in New Zealand, where Paddy worked as a horseman and owner-trainer, which she says is a role far more common in New Zealand than Australia. The family emigrated to Australia during a visit to compete in the Brisbane Winter Carnival, and bought property outside Ballarat, a one-acre block as a family home in Miners Rest, and a forty-acre paddock that backed onto the Ballarat Racecourse. Michelle said, “By the time I was thirteen, I was riding on the training tracks at Ballarat.” She left school at fifteen to become an apprentice jockey.

Paddy also became a farmer, acquiring a 250-acre dairy farm, and moving himself and the younger children to work the farm, leaving the older kids at their home in Miners Rest.

There was a book about the family in 1996, written by Tony Kneebone, The Paynes: The Struggle, the Pain, the Glory, but Michelle Payne told her own story in 2016, with John Harms, to expand on her Melbourne Cup win and to talk more intimately about her views on racing, called Life As I Know It. Her book served as the primary reference for the film script.

The Payne genealogical tree is peppered with extra-large families. Michelle’s grandfather was born on the North Island of New Zealand and came from a family of ten children. Her grandmother, born in Ireland, also came from a family of ten. Her mother Mary was also one of ten children. All were devout Roman Catholics; Michelle said they had a “good Catholic home”.

Rachel Griffiths, born in 1968, was raised in Melbourne as a Catholic but, in 2002, stated she was an atheist. In 2015 she declared that she was once again a practising Catholic. Ride Like a Girl is her motion picture directorial debut.

In spite of the loaded overtones of the title, Ride Like a Girl, Griffiths says, “It is not a man-shaming movie.” It began as simply a working title and she said, “I always loved it. It was never sure whether we’d get a better one. We never did.”

Michelle Payne’s book is called Life As I Know It, so the title of the film wouldn’t have been her suggestion, although she did say, in an interview with Bridie Jabour of the Guardian:

It’s such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off … it’s a very male-dominated sport and people think we are not strong enough and all of the rest of it … 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 … I’m so glad to win the Melbourne Cup and hopefully it will help female jockeys from now on to get more of a go.

The title of the film suggests the “Like a Girl” ads that were broadcast during the 2014 American Superbowl. Variations of the classic swipe include “throw like a girl” and “hit like a girl”, with the implication that to do something “like a girl”, is to do it badly. Predating all the Twitter chatter, back in 2013, the term “play like a girl” was banned by the Liverpool Football Club, who issued a handbook of phrases and words whose usage was no longer acceptable, either on the playing field or from fans, including: man up, wog, yid, raghead, fag, ladyboy, midget and retard, amongst many others. The film title was no doubt an attempt to reclaim this worn phrase and recast it as a term of empowerment.

Jessica Montague of Vogue said: “When Michelle Payne won the Melbourne Cup wearing the colours of the suffragettes [purple, green and white] and Paspaley pearl earrings, it ranked up there with Cathy Freeman taking gold at the Sydney Olympics.”

But after watching the film and reading Payne’s frank and enthusiastic account of her life, I find this “working title” a bit press-ganged onto a much deeper story of a true Australian champion whose main motivation was not to make political statements about inequalities between the sexes, but to surpass her personal best every time she raced.

The Melbourne critic Jim Schembri wrote:

We see Payne receive guffaws of sexist exclusion in the film but they’re never more than expressions of ignorance. Once the ignorance is addressed by her performance on the track, the hot air evaporates.

In truth, Michelle Payne has been surrounded by strong and kind men her entire life. She said, “We lived in a crazy house of unsated affection where there was love in the dust.” After her mother died, her father raised their ten children by himself, most of them becoming champion riders. She said her father taught her:

how to live with horses, in the same place as horses and to look after them. To treat them with respect but to also win their respect, to be part of their day and to ride them. He taught me to believe in the relationship between horse and jockey.

Her brother Stevie was, and probably remains, her best friend, and her two older brothers, Patrick and Andrew, were racing long before she was (Patrick was the first family member to ride in the Melbourne Cup, in 1991) and were family role models for her. Not to mention the male trainers who stood by her, and guided her, on her way to glory.

Michelle Payne initially had some resistance from her family about assisting with the making of the film, some of them arguing, “We don’t want to talk about our family, we’re private people.” She also wasn’t keen about having a movie made about her life but came to trust Griffiths. Michelle was the youngest in her family, as was Griffiths, who remarked, “I think the youngest children are very tenacious.”

Griffiths had been looking for an Australian story to direct, reading a lot of books and manuscripts but, she says, “I happened to be watching the Melbourne Cup the day Michelle won and in just five minutes I knew.” It took her four years to realise the project.

Although well known and successful as an actor, in films such as Muriel’s Wedding and Hilary and Jackie, Griffiths’s only previous experience as a director had been on several episodes of the wonderful television series Indian Summers, in which she also acted.

There is an extraordinary recreation of the Melbourne Cup race in the movie, and an equally stunning description of it, from Payne’s perspective, in her book. The main impression that her written personal account gave me was that racing is a vastly under-appreciated and extremely high-risk sport. She writes:

Racing is dangerous. There’s no point dressing it up or trying to suggest otherwise. Horses are beautiful animals but they are much bigger than you think they would be. Racehorses look so sleek and fine, yet they weigh over 500 kgs. They have delicate legs that are surprisingly skinny with hard hooves. They run very fast—at about 60 to 70 kms per hour. That’s 100 metres in six seconds.

Richard Keddie said they broke a lot of cameras shooting the racing sequences: “It’s an unbelievably dangerous sport. I had no idea how dangerous it is. So it was really hard filming it and protecting everyone.”

A year after winning the Cup, Payne had another serious fall at Mildura, where she suffered a torn pancreas. She told the media that after the accident she could not even remember winning the Melbourne Cup and “had to Google it”. Four months later she returned to racing, but soberly remarked:

Increasingly reports were coming out in America about sportspeople and the neurological and mental health issues that were plaguing them. Boxers to footballers. Anyone in collision sports. Medical science was developing its understanding that concussion had serious implications. I had to live with that.

Payne planned to ride Prince of Penzance again in the 2016 Melbourne Cup, but the racehorse fractured a leg the month before at Caulfield, and three screws inserted into its foreleg ended that dream, and, most likely, its racing career.

Teresa Palmer, who played Payne in the movie, visited Payne at home, watched her ride and train and asked her many questions about her life growing up. Palmer had limited experience with horses, and was given two trainers to help her prepare for the role. They started her on a pony and then moved her to a racehorse. After three weeks of struggle, she said that something just “clicked”. She enjoyed working with Michelle’s brother, Stevie:

he is so funny. Of all the actors on the show he’s the one that cracked me up all the time. He had these brilliant one-liners that he would pull out all the time and just had me on the floor laughing.

Stevie wasn’t sure he would be able to act, but he turned out to be a natural.

Sam Neill met Michelle’s father, Paddy Payne, and studied his mannerisms in order to play him accurately. Paddy Payne confessed to Neill that he had never seen any of his films, to which Neill good-naturedly replied, “Well, I’m not very good.” But Michelle commented after watching him portray her father, “He’s so my dad.” Stevie agreed. In an interview with Karl Quinn of the Courier, Teresa Palmer said:

after I’d been working with Sam for a couple of weeks, I met Paddy, and I just could not believe how perfectly Paddy was being portrayed by Sam. Even the way he holds his hands behind his back, and his intonation on certain words, it’s exactly the same as Paddy.

Jim Schembri wrote that the role fitted Sam Neill “like a favourite cardigan”.

Reviews of the film have been mixed. Luke Buckmaster of the Guardian said, “This is play-to-the-bleachers entertainment, loaded with Hallmark sentiment and configured with an atmospheric integrity a cut above a soft drink commercial.” Francesca Rudkin of the New Zealand Herald, wrote, “If you’ve got a daughter who is too old for animations, but too young for many teenage films, Ride Like a Girl is the perfect film to fill the gap.” Stephen Romei, in the Australian, called it “a winner … largely because Griffiths makes it less about the racetrack and more about family, friends, gender bias in sport and elsewhere”.

In 2017, Michelle Payne tested positive for an appetite suppressant forbidden by the Australian racing rules, and was banned from racing for four weeks. She admitted taking the drug and apologised publicly.

In 2019, trainer Darren Weir was charged with animal cruelty offences for possessing electric shock jiggers—devices, often used with a whip, that deliver an electric shock to the horse—including three counts of engaging in the torturing, abusing, overworking and terrifying of a racehorse, and was banned from racing for four years. One of the screenings of Ride Like a Girl was interrupted by animal rights protesters.

Sandra Hall of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Ride Like a Girl “suffers from a pervasive wholesomeness … we may one day have a film that exposes the rough underside of the Australian horseracing industry but Ride Like a Girl isn’t it”. Griffiths was interviewed about the Weir scandal, telling Demeter Stamell of the Daily Mail:

I celebrate Darren because he gave Stevie Payne a job … he kept Michelle on a Group One. I celebrate Darren as the man who saw the ability and talents of these two people … why are we talking about … what he did four years after? It’s irrelevant.

The Payne family is a extraordinary family of jockeys and trainers amassing more than 2000 wins. Michelle Payne, the youngest, has ridden some 300 winners. Seven of her siblings also became champion jockeys. Patrick (the oldest, now fifty-two) was licensed in 1990 and has ridden more than 1000 winners. Bernadette got her licence in 1993 and has ridden hundreds of winners. Maree got her licence in 1987 and has 600 wins. Therese was licensed in 1985 and rode 450 winners. She became a trainer in 2000. Brigid was licensed as a jockey in 1984, riding 41 winners; she died of a heart attack in 2007. Andrew got his licence in 1994, and has ridden 210 winners, becoming a trainer in 2000. Cathy was licensed in 1996, has ridden more than 200 winners, and is married to Kerrin McEvoy, three-time winner of the Melbourne Cup. Michelle Payne said, “Jockeys tend to go out with jockeys or people from the racing industry because no one from the real world would ever put up with the lifestyle.”

Stephen is the foreman at the family stables in Ballarat. Margaret was the only sibling not to go into racing, but she graduated in accountancy and works as Michelle Payne’s accountant. In 2016, Michelle Payne and her brother Stephen were honoured as Queen and King of Moomba.

Ride Like a Girl was the highest grossing Australian film of 2019. Jim Schembri says: “It serves to reminds us all … that the Australian film industry can, indeed, knock out a decent family film when it sets its mind to it.”

One thought on “‘Ride Like a Girl’: The Making of a Champion

  • lloveday says:

    The Paynes are a credit to racing, but to describe 8 of them as “champion jockeys” is way over the top. If they are all champions, so are the vast majority of jockeys.
    Even describing Michelle as “an authentic champion” is not warranted by her record – since the MC win, she has had 418 rides for 34 winners (8% compared to 10% for all riders) at a return at SP (or SOP in the new language) of 53%, a poor result. She is a lovely person, was a competent rider and her record before the MC was somewhat better, but well short of that of a champion and no serious racing analysis would rate her as such.

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