02 Nov Australia’s Most Famous female Jockey wants to win world’s best races
Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Michelle Payne loving life training horses at Nottingham farm
Australia’s most famous female jockey Michelle Payne dreamt big and delivered before, now the Melbourne Cup-winner has set her sights on training winners of the world’s best races.
Paddy Payne felt obliged to ask.
A man of few words and none wasted, the patriarch of one of Australia’s most famous racing clans had to know why daughter Michelle went to others not him for training advice.
Older brothers Patrick and Andrew were the first points of call, to this day also, when Payne opened a boutique operation, Nottingham, just outside Ballarat in 2016.
Payne Sr, an “old school” horseman, who relies on eye and instinct to train over science and technology, watched and waited for Payne to seek his counsel — but it didn’t come.
Instead, the Melbourne Cup-winning jockey sourced the guidance of champion Australian trainers Gai Waterhouse, Peter Moody, Darren Weir and Ciaron Maher, among others.
Then, trips to England and France put the 34-year-old in touch with masterminds Aiden O’Brien, Luca Cumani and Christiane ‘Criquette’ Head.
Payne’s boyfriend, David Eustace, is the latest sounding board, if not always listened to.
“Dad said to me ‘you ask all these trainers like Patrick and David for advice but you don’t ask me’,” Payne told the Herald Sun in an exclusive interview sitting on an upturned bucket outside the main shed at Nottingham.
“I said ‘Well, I’ve watched you from when I was a little kid’ … he thinks I don’t take much away from what he does but … (what he has) can’t be taught, you got to watch and learn.”
The youngest of 10 Payne children, Michelle grew up as “Dad’s right hand man” going at the horse sales, where she learned how to read and thumb through bloodstock books.
“He’s got a real eye for the horse and I was always with him … that’s something that takes years of training, I was lucky to have that with dad.”
From the first female jockey in history to win the Melbourne Cup to the release of her movie, Ride Like A Girl, the past four years has been a whirlwind for the “country girl at heart”.
Payne will eventually drop a house (quite literally, a trucked in pre-built country cottage) at Nottingham, overlooking a dam adjoining the property, but for now it is a case of shuttling between Ballarat and the big smoke.
The alarm went off at 3am last Thursday to give Payne, who was at an event in Melbourne the night before, time to get the “farm”.
“It’s busy, but I love it,” Payne said.
“Getting out on the tractor in my own paddocks, it’s nice to be able to do that and also go to Melbourne and dress up.
“It’s good to have the best of both worlds, it also makes Melbourne feel like a bit of a treat, and being able to work with these magnificent animals every day is not like work to me.
“It is work I would do for free, so I’m very lucky to have a job I love so much.”
Payne has eyes in the back of her head.
At the very least, on both sides.
Maybe it is the 15 years’ riding experience, an innate sense, like touch, smell and taste, which taught the Australia’s most famous female jockey how to see around corners.
Less than 30 seconds into this interview — 26 seconds to be precise — Payne caught a glimpse of a stable hand walking a horse on the blind side of a big shed and paused.
“Ummm …” Payne said nervously, not wanting to be rude.
“He can probably go out with those two ponies for the day and come in tonight because otherwise he’s got no friends.”
As if nothing had occurred, Payne picked up where she left off, regaling her love of horses.
Payne has 40 acres at her disposal.
Six spelling paddocks out the back, four training paddocks at the front.
A big shed, 10 yards and six boxes.
She has about 20 horses at any one time, of those, only 12-15 in work.
A casual set up, yes but not one for the feint-hearted.
Her fingerprints are all over Nottingham, from the riding and schooling of horses around a tight sand track to driving tractors, mowing fields, mucking out boxes and clearing drains.
Although a pump, purchased only recently, it is hoped will sort out the stinky drains.
“What I love about training is there is no set rules or set way,” Payne said.
“Everybody trains so amazingly different, from Aiden O’Brien to Peter Moody to Gai Waterhouse to my brother Patrick … and it doesn’t mean it’s not effective or successful.
“I love that there is so many variables with horses and I love trying to work out each horse.
“They’re so different, whether you ride them on speed, or from behind, whether they like being trained out in the paddock or they’re better in the yard.
“So many different things add up to the end result … that’s why I want to stay really small because it’s really hands on and you don’t miss a thing.
“When you’ve got 200 horses it makes it really hard, I’ve made a promise to myself to stay nice and small, have a good boutique stable and give everything I’ve got with each horse.”
Payne has dreamt big previously, and delivered.
Not one to shy away from reaching for the stars, the 34-year-old has set her sights on saddling up Sweet Rockette at Royal Ascot next year.
“She’s given me a feeling that not many horses have, a real X-factor,” Payne said.
Sweet Rockette has been to the races five times for a win at the Valley and two placings.
But issues with injury and confirmation have required Payne to be patient, which she has.
“I’ve always said to the owners I thought she was going to be a beautiful four year-old mare, so she’s had plenty of time of time to mature and grow.”
Payne’s closest friends, including acclaimed Australian actress and Ride Like A Girl director Rachael Griffiths, former world champion surfer Layne Beachley, corporate heavy-hitter Katie Page, make up the “sorority” behind Sweet Rockette.
“We want to get her rating up and see if she warrants the trip over, it’s a ladies (only) horse, so they’re pretty keen for the trip,” Payne said.
There’s a 2020 Derby and future Cups prospect at Nottingham already — Think Champayne — a son of dual Cox Plate winner So You Think being handled with kid gloves.
“It would be pretty cool (to train a Cup winner),” Payne said.
“That’s the beauty of it, you can dream.
“We might be way off but I think he’s not the most hopeless chance to get there one day.”
Racing rules. Always.
The 2015 Melbourne Cup turned Payne into hot property on the events and speaking circuits but the dual licensed jockey and trainer remains adamant the horses come first.
“People pay me a lot of money to train these horses, that’s my No. 1 priority,” Payne said.
“There’s plenty of money to be made out of the speaking engagements but I can’t justify not doing that and not doing a good enough job back here.”
Payne will ride three of her own horses on Cup Day.
She wanted to book friend Jamie Kah on one but the gun jockey was already had a ride in the race.
Riding remains a welcome outlet for busy bee Payne, although the end date is nigh.
At 28, Payne thought she would be retired by 30.
Then, Prince Of Penzance bobbed up.
Now, at 34, Payne, who wants a family of her own one day, would love to go around for one more spring carnival, at least, before settling down.
“I love racing a horse anywhere,” Payne said.
“It gives you a huge thrill, whether its Warracknabeal or Flemington, I think if you can get the best out of the horse, that’s what you’re in the game for.”