This piece on Michelle Payne and her family was first published by Fairfax Media on October 17, 2009.
Passion and Payne
Published: November 3, 2015 - 5:25PM
When Michelle Payne finally got back to her car and switched on her mobile phone last Saturday, 45 messages and 11 missed calls awaited her. The first one she attended to was her father, Paddy, whose reaction to her breakthrough success a couple of hours earlier was as measured as ever.
"He always says to me if I have a bad day, 'At least you get to pack your bags and go home'," Michelle says, smiling at the silliness of a game played out a thousand times over.
"That was the first thing he said on Saturday too, and I said, 'Yes dad, I got to pack my bags'. And then he said, 'And you got a group 1 winner to go with it'."
Payne reads the play well enough to know dad was inwardly dancing a jig over his baby girl's maiden group 1 win (on Bart Cummings' roughie Allez Wonder in the Toorak Handicap), even if he was rock steady on the surface. Like the nine siblings who came before her, she knows the score. "He'll put you down if you're going really well, or he'll boost you up if you're going badly," she says. "He always keeps you pretty level."
Like when she was four, and Paddy threw her on the back of a grumpy Shetland pony, who immediately dumped her in the dirt. "Get back on or you never will," she was told, and so she did.
Fast forward more than a decade, and no sooner had 15-year-old Michelle ridden a winner in her very first race - on her father's horse Reigning, in front of her cheering schoolmates and on home turf at Ballarat - than dad was telling her she should chuck in this jockey caper and go back to school. "For the first six months dad was saying, 'You just don't seem to have it. All the other kids showed a little bit of potential . . .'
"I remembered him telling the other kids that they weren't any good either, telling Maree she could only sit one leg either side and move her little fingers, that was all she could do. I knew it wasn't just me, but it made me so angry. It made me more determined to try harder and prove him wrong."
The bluff can only get Paddy Payne so far, and the children of this remarkable family that has been rattled by grief, but glued together ever stronger in its wake, have always known it. Embedded deeper in Michelle's memory than any paternal advice is her father telling her, day after day, how much he loved her mother.
"My dad always talked about her to me, always told me what a beautiful lady she was. It was probably hard for the older kids who remembered her to talk about her. They had their memories they kept to themselves. Dad used to tell me every day how lucky he was. I think it was good for him to get it out, but it was good for me too."
Michelle was just six months old when Mary Payne was killed in a car crash near their Miner's Rest home, north of Ballarat. As a community rallied around a widower and his 10 children, Paddy Payne made a decision that would define them. In his 1996 book, The Paynes: The Struggle, The Pain, The Glory, Tony Kneebone writes of Paddy gathering his family around him the day after Mary's death, as neighbourly offerings rained down upon them. "It's better for us to get going on our own," he told his children.
Eleven-year-old Bernadette was given the job of looking after bub. "She used to get up in the middle of the night and feed me, then fall asleep in school," Michelle says. As she grew, and Bernadette moved overseas on an exchange, Therese took over.
"She was the motherly figure, and sort of still is to a point. I used to buy her Mother's Day gifts at school when everyone would take $2 and buy something for their mum. She was always cooking tea for us. I'm really close to a lot of my sisters, but probably especially Therese."
The second-youngest Payne, Stephen, is Down's Syndrome, a challenge that was met with a well-practised, country Australian zeal. "Stevie was just treated as normal," Michelle says. "Me and Stevie were just called the little kids. We were always together, and if anyone was looking for us they'd just say, 'Where are the little kids'? If they found one they'd find the other one.
"When we were little, he cottoned on pretty quickly that he was Down's Syndrome and he could get out of it. We'd be getting in trouble and he'd say, 'I didn't know - I'm Down's Syndrome'."
Now 27, Stephen lives with his dad and works as a stablehand for local trainer Darren Weir. Back then, big brothers Patrick and Andrew ensured he and Michelle had a solid grounding in hard graft.
"They used to make Stephen and I be targets for them - we'd have to run and they'd shoot at us with the slug gun. We didn't want to play, but if we didn't play we'd be closer and it would hurt more."
When Paddy put a stop to this, "the little kids" were transformed into horses for crawling races around the rockery - one lap for a sprint, two or three for a staying race with a sprint finish to the tree. "We'd be the horses, crawling along, and they'd be running beside us holding onto our tops, and they'd have whips. I'd be Let's Elope and Stephen would be Canny Lad. They loved it, and Stephen and I hated it. We'd be going to school with holes in our pants. You toughened up pretty quickly."
Michelle's toughness is not at issue. In 2004, aged 18, she fell headfirst from her mount at Sandown, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain. Sidelined for months and "in a pretty bad way", she cried herself to sleep at night, fearful she would never be well enough to ride again.
Her father feared that she would, and again questioned whether this was the life for her. She pressed on, albeit with a dash of her old man's verbal trickery when her riding licence was reinstated.
"The doctor said to me if you have another fall, your brain's not as strong and you'll be worse off," she recalls, admitting she never asked whether the threat would abate over time. "Dad asked me what he said, and I told him the doctor said my brain was strong again and it was OK for me to ride."
She soon fell again and broke a wrist, but was by now hardened and cowed by no one. When Damien Oliver cut her off coming in to the home turn at Caulfield, the apprentice let the champion know she wasn't there to be trampled on.
"We had a big argument coming back to scale and watching the replay. He just shaved me, cut me fine when he wasn't clear, and I was annoyed that he took that risk. He said, 'What do you expect, that we'll put the red carpet out for you'?
"He was getting mad and I was getting mad. He said, 'If you had any idea you would have been going then anyway'. I said, 'If I had any idea? You went too early and I ran you down! I ran second and you were third'!"
She didn't take the fight into the stewards' room and Oliver was spared sanction. They shook hands and moved on, but not before Oliver let her know he expected more respect from one so young. Payne responded that was all she was asking for - respect.
Of Paddy and Mary's 10 children, only Margaret and Stephen did not become jockeys. Therese, Maree and Cathy were trailblazers, while Patrick was the star, his 18 group 1 wins, including Northerly's second Cox Plate in 2002, before he outgrew the saddle and followed Andrew into training.
Michelle idolised her big brother, and even as a five-year-old her stomach churned when she watched him ride. Now, she has booted home more than 400 winners, and earned the respect of hard-nosed punters who no longer mark her down for the "Ms" that precedes her name on the formguide. She is more than just a pretty face, as Cummings noted in vintage fashion last weekend.
Payne laughs at the recall of their mounting-yard banter before the Toorak, when the master trainer greeted her by noting that she is "getting prettier every week".
When she brought him back on track with a request for riding instructions on Allez Wonder, he told her simply to sit midfield, bring her to the outside "and see if she can run home".
Returning triumphant and a group 1 winner at last, all Cummings said was: "Can you ride 50 [kilograms] in the Caulfield Cup?"
Her week has been so full that the mere thought of it could trigger weight loss, but she knows the vagaries of form, and the need to capitalise. On Tuesday she was up at 3.30am to ride trackwork at Caulfield, then drove to Echuca and booted home a double. Wednesday was Caulfield again, Thursday Cranbourne, and a late favour for dad took her to Mornington yesterday. "It's such a big week, you do it on adrenaline."
She laughs at what her neighbours must think, of this elusive little girl next door who keeps such strange hours and always has a new car in the drive. Home is her refuge; Therese is around the corner, but Michelle has lived alone for three years. "It's nice to come home and not have to talk to anybody."
The grind got to her two years ago, and she escaped for a working holiday in England, staying with Cathy and husband Kerrin McEvoy (Therese - Jason Patton, and Maree - Brett Prebble, also married jockeys). She came back reinvigorated, so went again this winter.
The Paynes are renowned for their work ethic; like her siblings before her, Michelle is a track walker, does all she can to tip the odds in her favour. The working holidays have boosted her CV, which includes experience with Luca Cumani and Jane Chapple-Hyam, Georges Delouze in France and Aidan O'Brien in Ireland.
She is in demand. The "Spring Spruiker", a Racing Victoria Limited competition winner, was badgering her this week to be in a photo planting a kiss on her cheek in return for enlisting members to the Michelle Payne fan club - known as "The Payne Train". She wasn't looking forward to running it by boyfriend Mark Zahra first.
At 24, coming up nine years in the saddle, Payne knows she has put more laps of the rockery behind her than lie ahead. "I don't want to be old and punching them around, day after day. It's a hard lifestyle. I've always wanted to get to my best by now, 24, 25, then ride at my best for a few years and be content that I've given it my best shot and I can feel good about retiring."
Whatever she does, she will always be her father's little girl. They speak two or three times a day, and there was something of a sibling cyclone recently when Paddy gave Michelle two plates that served as the trophy for a race won by his horse, Miner's Man, the year she was born.
"My sisters found out and said, 'You can't have them, they're a family heirloom'. I said, 'I can so, Dad gave them to me'.
"I think I am a little bit spoilt, but the baby always is a bit special."
Paddy knew this early; in the last line of The Paynes, he cautions that the book was penned prematurely, "because the little one is likely to end up better than the lot of them".
The family was rocked again early in 2007 by the sudden death of Brigid, the eldest, to aneurisms and a heart attack. Bernadette now lives in Queensland and Maree in Hong Kong, but the familial bond prevails. It has given Michelle something else to aspire to. "I think we're very lucky," she says. "I would like to have a lot of kids so they could have the same sort of life that we've had. We're very lucky to have each other."
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/passion-and-payne-20151103-gkpszn.html