‘They always say women aren’t strong enough to win it. We are.’
A jockey from Ballarat, Michelle Payne, made history today. She rode Prince of Penzance to victory in the 155th Melbourne Cup, becoming the first female in history to hold the most prestigious trophy in horse racing.
Her win is significant, whether you love or loathe horse racing. It’s significant whether you love or loathe gambling. Her win is significant because it proves anything is possible. And if you think that seems trite, take a look at the response her win invoked.
“This is everybody’s dream as a jockey in Australia and now probably the world,” she told Channel 7 just after the race. “And I dreamt about it from when I was five years old and there is an interview from my school friends, they were teasing me about, when I was about seven, and I said, “I’m going to win the Melbourne Cup” and they always give me a bit of grief about it and I can’t believe we’ve done it.”
Michelle didn’t just have a big dream. For a female jockey, it was an almost unattainable dream.
Payne delivered a few powerful truths when she spoke of her disbelief at winning in such a “chauvinistic sport”. She said “they always say women aren’t strong enough. We are”. She said women aren’t given enough of a go. Whether it was planned or not, she was wearing the colour of the Suffragettes as she made her mark in history.
She was riding a horse trained by a man, Darren Weir, who was willing to give her go. He rewarded hard work, she kept turning up. He supported her and believed in her, even in the face of resistance.
It was tear-jerking and goose-bump inducing.
“To think that Darren Weir has given me a go and it’s such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off, and John Richards and Darren stuck strongly with me, and I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win the Melbourne Cup and I can’t say how grateful I am to them,” Payne told Channel Seven after the race. “I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.”
For any woman who has encountered resistance – covert or overt – in their chosen field, it was akin to a welcome high five. A moment to savour and celebrate. A reminder that even when it might seem like a woman has no chance at all, she does.
If a female jockey, who some owners sought to have removed from the race, can win the Melbourne Cup, what can’t she do? And, by extension, what can’t any of us do?
For any young woman who has a dream that seems out of reach, Michelle Payne’s win is affirming.
For every person who seeks to dismiss a woman’s capabilities straight out of the blocks, it’s a powerful countenance.
At six months of age, Payne’s mother died in a car accident, leaving her father to raise her and her nine siblings on his own. She has been riding since she was 15 years of age, and persisted in the face of serious injuries and several setbacks. Horse riding runs through the Payne’s blood; five of Michelle’s older sisters and two of her brothers were also jockeys – most of them were at the track alongside her.
Michelle’s brother, Stevie, is her housemate and worked as her strapper today. He shadowed her every move at Flemington and in her acceptance speech she said she was thrilled to have shared the day and the win with him.
During spring racing, the subject of animal cruelty is inescapable. One of the Melbourne Cup favourites Red Cadeaux was injured in the race and raced to the vet but has pulled through. The subject of gambling is equally fraught when considering the race that stops the nation. These issues are valid and very difficult to reconcile with the celebration that accompanies this race.
Today’s race would be running regardless of these concerns and it doesn’t detract from Michelle’s achievement, or the significance of the race being won by the only woman in the field, for the first time in history.
Michelle Payne is not just a history-making Melbourne Cup winning jockey. She kept going and, today, when she won her moment in the spotlight, she didn’t shy away from it. She grabbed it and used her platform to deliver a message about women in racing. She was articulate and powerful and brave. One can only wonder what the men who sought to have her taken from the race were thinking.
That is a legacy that extends well beyond Flemington, well beyond horse-racing and well beyond 2015. And for that, she is far more than a history-making jockey. She is a trailblazing Australian woman that I can’t believe it took us this long to learn about.