Michelle Payne OAM is planning for the future

29 May 2023 Written by Sarah Marinos

Since her historic win in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, Michelle Payne OAM has juggled race riding, training, and numerous other commitments. One of Australia’s most popular sportspeople, Payne has decided that the next racing season (2023-24) will be her last as a jockey, as she concentrates on building the training side of her business. We take a look at her journey so far.

Michelle Payne was only five years old when she set her heart on winning a Melbourne Cup. At home on her family’s property in Ballarat, she remembers intently watching the race and desperately wanting to win.

“I was obsessed with the Melbourne Cup. I’d sit and watch the race and pull out my eyelashes so I could make a wish that I’d win it one day. I still find it hard to believe that I’ve achieved that,” said Payne.

“But I had no idea of what would happen to my life after winning. I crossed that finishing line and went back to the mounting yard to be interviewed and I still had no idea of the enormity of it. It was an absolute shock.”

For the quiet, hardworking jockey from a family of other quiet, hardworking jockeys and trainers, the spotlight and expectations that came with her history-making ride were sometimes difficult to navigate.

“In no way am I ungrateful for what happened after I won, but I just wasn’t prepared. There were so many requests and people asking for help and I didn’t want to let anyone down, but I simply couldn’t do everything. I’m also someone who likes some quiet, private time and so I struggled with all the attention for a while ..”

In the middle of the chaos, Payne’s haven was the 40-acre property next door to her Dad’s farm in Ballarat. She bought it with her brother, Stevie, in 2013, and it’s here that, for the past five years, she’s focused on the next stage of her career as a trainer.

“My farm is next door to Dad’s which is where I learned to ride, so this place is very special to me. I love the country lifestyle and being close to Dad and Stevie. I lived in Melbourne for 16 years when I became a jockey, but always wanted to come home when the time was right,” she said.

“I grew up in the country, love the lifestyle and there’s nothing like being out in the fresh air with the horses. It doesn’t feel like a job to me and working with Stevie is a lot of fun. We have been inseparable from as far back as I can remember and I’m lucky to have him in my life. He takes what he does very seriously but he also makes me laugh every day.”

Becoming a trainer was also always a long-term plan. Having worked with and for some of Australia’s and the world’s most respected trainers, Payne has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience that she now uses as a trainer.

“By the time I was 21 I recognised that I had to think about what I’d do when I finished riding. It had to be something I was passionate about because, as a jockey, I put all my energy into that. I think when you do something for a long time and you stop, you can get a bit lost and becoming a trainer was a logical step for me,” she said.

She is up from around 4am, feeding and checking the horses that she agists and trains.

“Stevie is the main man for doing the yards and boxes and checking the waters and hay – he’s meticulous in everything he does,” said Payne.

“Once the horses are fed and prepared, we get them saddled up and start working them. I’ve got a small track or I take them next door to Dad’s track. We can also access the racecourse from here and we have a treadmill and also a water walker nearby.

“We have a small team of horses so I ride every horse a lot and I know them well. Noticing a minor detail can help you get the best out of a horse and I love the connection that forms when you can ride and train them. I’ve ridden my whole life and I’ve watched and learned along the way but with horses, there is always something more to learn.”

Payne’s first highlight as a trainer was winning at Moonee Valley on Sweet Rockette in August 2018. After raising her from a yearling, Payne rode Sweet Rockette to victory that day.

“She wasn’t an easy horse to train and she had quite bad confirmation but I took a chance with her and to get her to win a good race was exciting,” she said.

She has enjoyed further success with Jukila who ran in the Jericho Cup. It’s the longest flat race in Australia and is held at Warrnambool Racecourse each November.

Her media roles, including being a part of Channel Ten’s Melbourne Cup Carnival broadcast team, and various ambassadorial roles, give Payne a chance to sample a different side of the industry.

“I spent many years getting dirt kicked in my face out on the track, so it’s also nice to be able to get dressed up!”

Commenting in 2022 that she “had more to give” as a jockey, she was already contemplating her future.

“I know I won’t ride for a lot longer, I’d love to have a family, and I just know the time will come when I’ll be happy to focus on the training. But I want to be 100 per cent content when I give it away. I’ll know when the time is right and when I’m done as a jockey and then I can walk away happy.”

Michelle is also an Ambassador with VRC’s new charity partner Child and Racehorse Movement (CARM) is a collaboration between the KIDS Foundation and Rehab4Rehab to create a unique and innovative mental health and wellbeing program for children and retired racehorses.

Through CARM, retired racehorses and kids share a journey together toward building strong, purposeful and beautiful lives.