"Be the heroine of your life, not the victim," said Nora Ephron. And isn't that true of Michelle Payne, the female jockey who put the wind up the sails of Prince of Penzance and performed a precision move at the last to conquer the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, beating the boys at their own game.
"Queen of the Sport of Kings" sang the front page of The Courier-Mail! "Tenacious country girl makes history aboard roughie - then tells doubting blokes to get stuffed."
Michelle's story is remarkable; the stuff of Australian folklore, a true triumph over adversity in the land girt by sea. The youngest of 10 children, Michelle's mother, Mary, died in a car accident when she was only six months' old. Big sister Brigid, then 16, and father Paddy brought the baby up. There was no choice but to work hard and work together to keep the family's head above water.
“I’m just so grateful for my upbringing because I wouldn’t be here without that,” said Michelle.
Under Paddy's tutelage, the kids learned to ride; eight of the 10 would become jockeys. All the girls, except Michelle, retired from the saddle and the boys, too weighty for the saddle, became trainers. Brigid, an accomplished horsewoman, died in 2007, aged just 36, of a heart attack while recovering from a heavy fall.
So it was brother Stevie who partnered with Michelle on the day to defeat the odds, drawing the number one barrier and predicting the horse would be "in front at 200 metres [to go]". As strapper, feeding, grooming, rigging, swimming and saddling the horse for track work and races are all in a day's work.
"Stevie Payne making strapping cool again," declared The Age. Stevie has Down syndrome, by the way.
A dynamic duo, for sure, this brother and sister, the youngest of the Payne tribe, who grew up playing together. But without trainer Darren Weir, who runs the whole show, they'd be up the proverbial creek without a paddle (or a horse without a saddle?). He was lauded by co-owner John Richards and his jockey in a post-race interview.
"I've worked for some great trainers around the world, including Aidan O'Brien, Luca Cumani, Gai Waterhouse and Peter Moody," said Michelle. "Everyone does things a little differently. He [Weir] is such a horseman, he knows what horses need - not just one horse, but all of them."
The horse must be mentioned, of course, of course. He, too, overcame several setbacks to make it to the track and is now mentioned in the same breath as Phar Lap. A six-year-old gelding bought for $50,000 and given 100-1 chances to win the race, the Prince, too, defeated the odds (a bowel operation, surgery on joints, illness) and the doubting bookies to boot!
Oddly, but fitting for such a story, it was a consortium of blokes chipping in $5,000 each, reportedly unbeknownst to their wives, who helped bring the Prince to the track with a 10 per cent share of the takings. A podiatrist, two engineers, an IT consultant, a solutions expert and a producer walk into a bar and...
So, a horse, its owners, its trainer, jockey and strapper. What a team! What a dream! This is the stuff of Australian history. And we'd do well to celebrate such sporting feats in times such as these where we are questioning notions of national identity. The last words must go to Michelle, who had this to say to the kiddies:
"It's just a reminder that if you work hard and you dream, things can happen...You've got to believe in yourself, and for some reason I've always had great belief in myself, I don't know why, but I always thought I was going to be a good jockey and one day win the Melbourne Cup. It just goes to show that fairytales do come true and you've just got to stick to your dreams and keep striving for them."
Girl With a Satchel