A triumph of Payne over suffering

The Australian jockey has never had it easy but that has driven her to succeed in the saddle. She speaks to Chris McGrath
Click to follow
The Independent Online

She would sleep holding her father's hand, so that he could not leave bed without her knowing.

The fact that Michelle Payne was the last of 10 children, and had lost her mother in a road accident when just six months old, would seem to saturate this admission with pathos. Meet her now, however, and you soon learn that everything she does is far more likely to prompt admiration than pity. The only reason she would grip her father's hand was to prevent him creeping off to the stables at daybreak. "If he left me in bed, so I didn't get to ride before school, I would be so mad at him," she says. "When I was four, it was already all I wanted – to be a jockey."

The name Payne recurs throughout the modern annals of the Australian Turf, like some authenticating watermark. Eight of the 10 children became jockeys. Patrick was rated top-class, as good as there was; the older girls became pioneers for their sex. Three of them, for good measure, married top jockeys in Kerrin McEvoy, Brett Prebble and Jason Patton. The patriarch himself, Paddy, is now 72 and only has a couple of horses. But back in New Zealand he had been a rodeo rider and jump jockey, and on emigrating he became a successful trainer. Some of the siblings have now followed him into that trade, too.

And baby? At 23, Michelle has already ridden over 400 winners. The latest, Iasia at Warwick last month, ensured that she could return home yesterday with a fresh entry on her CV. The focus of a working holiday with Jayne Chapple-Hyam had been a potential Melbourne Cup mount, Judgethemoment, though in the event the ground turned against him at Goodwood last week.

"But the whole experience has been a real eye-opener," Payne said. "The training grounds at Newmarket, we don't have anything like it. I'll ride three horses in five hours; at home, it might be 10 or 12 in three. Here it feels more like trail-riding than a job. And you see the difference in the horses, too. At home they are a lot more pumped up."

She has missed her family, though, calling home daily. "When my mother passed away, there was talk of splitting up the family," she said. "But Dad didn't want it, and we stuck together."

The cement was always perspiration. "We had to work very hard," she said. "The younger five kids on the dairy farm, the older five with the horses. I'd be milking, or feeding the calves, from 5am until school time. It was pretty full on, but the only way our father could support us all. It was just kids everywhere, growing up, and always fights. Whatever it felt like then, looking back it was the best childhood you could possibly have."

This was in the remote interior of Victoria state, since devastated by drought. "Dad was always worried about irrigation, and was lucky to get out when he did," Payne said. "Farmers are going broke, there's a suicide every week. It's so sad."

The family's own fortitude was severely tested, of course, even before Payne's oldest sibling, Brigid, died two years ago, aged 36. Brigid had been one of the adolescent girls suddenly vested with maternal responsibilities when Payne was a baby. Yet even its most tragic challenges seem only to fortify the dynasty's traditional, Catholic values. "Things happen and you can't do anything about that," Payne said. "Dad says there's always something good round the corner. And if you keep battling, there is. That's the great thing about racing, and about life."

A third generation is already in business, Brigid's son having won on his first ride at the age of 15. As it happens, Payne herself did exactly the same. "People thought I could ride straightaway," she said. "But my second day riding I had six rides at a real country track, and it was so rough, I was bumped everywhere. Far out! I didn't think it was going to be like this. But you wise up."

At 18, Payne fractured her skull in a fall at Sandown, suffering cerebral bruising. Her family implored her to give up. But she only knows one way. Even at her home tracks, Payne walks the course every day. "You never know what the difference might be," she said. "What if you get beat a head, and didn't know where the better going was, because you'd been lazy?"

That seems a remote contingency in a woman who illuminated this soggy British summer with an infectious sense of pleasure in her calling. Payne by name, you might say, but paean by nature.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Saga De Tercey (3.20 Catterick)

One of his stable's many bumper winners, he was still green when just winning a steadily-run maiden at Musselburgh, and duly made his handicap debut off a charitable mark at Carlisle last time. His amateur rider was rather given the slip that day, but his finish left no doubt that he can win off this rating.

*Next best

Primaeval (5.10 Chepstow)

Made his debut in what looked a fairly mediocre maiden at Doncaster, but all three runners to have resurfaced since won their next start. This well bred animal was not given a severe race on his debut, either, finishing clear of the pack, and can build on those foundations here.

*One to watch

Even Bolder (E A Wheeler) bolted up off 73 at Sandown last summer and looks poised to strike soon, now that his rating has dwindled to 71. Finished fast in a sprint at Newbury on Sunday, having spent much of the race trapped on the bridle.