Paddy Payne with son Stevie. Photo: photos.racing.com
It inspired the biggest Australian sports film of the decade, but the story of Michelle Payne’s historic Gr.1 Melbourne Cup (3200m) victory has its roots on this side of the Tasman.
Ride Like a Girl, the big-screen retelling of Payne’s Cup triumph in 2015 aboard the Kiwi-bred Prince of Penzance, will be released in New Zealand cinemas on October 24. Payne herself will appear at Wednesday’s advance screening in Auckland, alongside director Rachel Griffiths.
Payne’s father Paddy, who incidentally is played by Kiwi actor Sam Neill in the film, was born and raised in South Taranaki and spent more than half of his life here. He had success as both a jockey and a trainer, and eight of his children were born in this country.
“I grew up in Hawera and had a bit of success when I was over there,” he said from his base near Ballarat, in Victoria.
“I rode a few horses and did alright – I actually won a steeplechase at Ellerslie with my very last ride.
“I also trained a few horses here and there and didn’t do too badly with those as well. We were just owner-trainers and had a few cheap horses and cast-offs, but we won a few decent races along the way.
“My last two runners in New Zealand were Group wins at Ellerslie – a horse called Paddy Boy won the Gr.1 Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) and the Gr.3 Champagne Stakes (1200m).”
The family relocated to Victoria in the early 1980s, where the two youngest children, Michelle Payne and her brother Stevie, were born.
“The reason we made the move was because the Hawera council needed our property for some settling pools,” Payne recalled. “Back then they had sewage flowing through concrete pipes, and it was decided that they were no longer allowed to have them just flow out into the ocean without being treated.
“So they needed to build some settling pools, and they wanted to use our property for that. We came to an agreement with them, decided to head over to Australia and it all worked out.”
The Paynes had some extra money for the move after selling Paddy Boy for a reported $300,000 to Robert Sangster. The son of Blarney Kiss went on to win the Gr.1 AJC Derby (2400m), Gr.1 Sydney Cup (3200m) and Gr.3 Adelaide Guineas (1600m), along with placings in the Gr.1 Rosehill Guineas (2000m), Gr.1 George Main Stakes (1600m) and Gr.2 Theo Marks Stakes (1400m).
“We initially made the move for two years, just to see how we go,” Payne said. “When that time was up, I suggested it might be a good time to go back, because the dollar was worth $1.70 and we could do quite well out of that with the money we had.
“But my wife said, ‘No, I like it here – I think we should stay.’ So that’s what we did. It all worked out in the end. The whole family really liked Australia and are happy here, and we’ve done well.”
But tragedy struck when youngest child Michelle was only six months old. Her mother Mary was killed in a car accident, leaving Paddy to raise the clan on his own, with the added challenge of Stevie’s Down Syndrome.
But raise them he did, and eight of the children went on to become jockeys.
Patrick Payne was the first to make an impact in the saddle, riding multiple Group One winners at the beginning of this century including a Cox Plate (2040m) and Australian Cup (2000m) on the champion Northerly. However, an ongoing battle with weight forced him to transition into training in 2007.
But Paddy Payne always knew that his youngest child Michelle also had what it took to make her mark in the saddle.
“She could always ride, and it was no surprise to me at all to see her succeed,” he said.
“It was certainly a proud day when she won the Melbourne Cup. You could say she was a bit lucky to be on a horse who ran so well on the day, but she’d won four Group One races before that as well. She’s done a great job.
“I’ve been very pleased to see the number of good female riders emerge in the last few years. We’ve got Jamie Kah now, and there’s Linda Meech as well, who also came over from New Zealand and has done marvellously.”
The Payne family retains many links to New Zealand, with a number of close friendships enduring to this day. One of those is with the Myers family, with Paddy Payne being a friend of Bill Myers, father of Wanganui trainer Kevin.
“We’re still friends with a lot of great farming people back in New Zealand, and we’ve stayed in touch with the Myers who have done very well with their horses,” Payne said.
That association has produced shared success in major jumping races in recent years, with Kevin Myers transferring the likes of Sea King and Tallyho Twinkletoe into Patrick Payne’s stable for their Australian campaigns.
Tallyho Twinkletoe won the New Zealand Grand National Hurdle (4200m) in 2015, and earlier this year he became the first horse since 1930 to win the Australian Grand National Hurdle (4200m) and Grand National Steeplechase (4500m) in the same season.
Patrick Payne also shares in the ownership of the Myers-trained Duke Of Plumpton, the winner of two of his six starts including at Hawera on Saturday.
Michelle Payne is now establishing her own place in the training ranks, with more than a dozen wins to her name along with placings at Group Two and Group Three level. Her brother Stevie, who shared the spotlight as strapper of Prince of Penzance and stars as himself in the movie, works alongside her.
Meanwhile, Paddy Payne is now in his eighties and still lives in Miners Rest in Victoria. He continues to dabble in training, having won races with Ronay and Miner’s Miss over the last 12 months. The latter also finished third in last year’s Gr.1 VRC Oaks (2500m) at Flemington.
“They’re the only two horses I’m training, but they’re both winners and they’ve earned a lot more money than I paid for them,” he said.
“Miner’s Miss cost me $10,000, and she ran third in the Oaks last November. She got $90,000 in prize-money for that race alone, so she’s more than paid me back.”