While Prince of Penzance was a 100-1 long shot before it won the $6.2 million Melbourne Cup yesterday, there’s no doubt that the story of the jockey who rode the six-year-old bay gelding from New Zealand to victory is even more remarkable.
Michelle Payne, 30, is the first woman to ride a Melbourne Cup winner. And she’s just the fourth woman to ride in the race, having previously ridden Allez Wonder in 2009 for Bart Cummings. Her first Group One win came a few months earlier on the same horse in the Toorak Handicap.
She’s been aboard Prince of Penzance for all bar one of his 23 races, and only missed that one because she was suspended. The horse has his own extraordinary story — the syndicate paid $50,000 for the yearling, hiding it from their wives and girlfriends and hoping to win the occasional country race. Before yesterday, POP, as he’s known, had already had amassed $600,000 in prizemoney.
The remarkable thing is that a year had passed since Prince of Penzance last won – at the Moonee Valley Cup in 2014 – and Payne was suspended for careless riding in that race.
Payne, the youngest of 10 children, is not new to racing. She has seven siblings – five sisters and two brothers – also in the saddle. The Payne family name has been heard around Victorian racecourses for nearly four decades. Her dad, Paddy Payne, was a horse trainer. Brothers Andrew and Patrick have both ridden in the Melbourne Cup, the latter now working as a trainer, an ambition Michelle also harbours.
Her brother Stevie, who has Down syndrome, is Prince of Penzance’s strapper and on Saturday, drew barrier one for the horse and his sister. Stevie has worked for trainer Darren Weir at his stables in Ballarat for nearly a decade and shares a house with his sister.
A decade ago, after a nasty fall left her with swelling on the brain and a fractured skull, her family urged Payne to give up riding. Her sister, Brigid, 36, died three years later in the wake of a training fall. She was the first of the siblings to become a jockey and had series of brain aneurysms and then a heart attack in January 2007, a decade after another fall that left her in a coma for several days.
It wasn’t the first tragedy to befall the family. Payne was just six months old when her mother, Mary, was killed in a car accident.
Paddy Payne raised his kids, and used to send them outside with boxing gloves on to sort out any differences they had with each other. Stevie and Michelle used to pretend that the rockery in the backyard was a racecourse and they’d hold mock Cox Plates around it. Their father recounted to the ABC in 2009 how Michelle would come into his bed at night and hold his hand so that in the morning, he wouldn’t go to the stables without her.
After the race yesterday, Payne was asked if she’d dreamt of winning the Melbourne Cup.
“You do it every year – this is every jockey’s dream in Australia,” she said.
That wasn’t her only triumph. Right now Prince of Penzance’s connections are all around $500,000 richer thanks to Payne and trainer Darren Weir, who resisted a push from some in the syndicate to take her off their mount.
“To think that Darren Weir has given me a go and [racing is] such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off, and [owners] John Richards and Darren stuck strongly with me. I can’t say how grateful I am to them,” she said.
Her advice to everyone who doubted the 7000 race veteran wasn’t up to the task was simple.
“I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.”
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