For over 150 years the Melbourne Cup was a men’s event. Only three other women had ridden in the race before Michelle Payne became the first woman to win in 2015.
Michelle’s remarkable story of determination and courage on her journey to the top has been brought to life in arguably one of Australia’s best sporting movies, Ride Like a Girl.
As the youngest daughter of 10, Michelle was raised by her Dad Paddy after her mother died in car accident when Michelle was just six months old. The family had a knack for horseracing, and at five years of age Michelle was already determined to win the Cup.
For Australian Actress and Hollywood regular Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under, Muriel’s Wedding), it’s been her first chance to step into the director’s shoes. Speaking to Hope 103.2, Rachel said she was compelled to tell Michelle’s story, having returned to Australia after years in the US.
“I came home to tell Australian stories,” she said. “Making film [takes] four years of your life, and I can’t imagine doing that if you didn’t feel as passionately about, and wasn’t as inspired by Michelle’s story as I was.”
Saying ‘yes’ to the project was an easy decision for Michelle herself. She first met Rachel after the actress waited to meet her at Randwick Racecourse alongside other race-going fans.
“When she sidled up beside me [and] said, ‘I would love to make your story into a movie’ she won me over,” Michelle said. “I could feel how she just wanted to make a film about my family and the dream of a little girl I was able to achieve.”
It’s Michelle’s family who do win you over in Ride Like a Girl, with her brother Stevie an absolute standout. Rachel and her producer Richard Keddie (Little Fish, Oddball) decided there was only one person who could play Stevie – who has Down Syndrome – and that was Stevie himself.
“I’ve worked with actors with Down Syndrome before”, said Rachel. “And they have such a compelling magic to them… they reveal everything. They hide nothing, and something quite wonderful happens.”
Ride Like a Girl is as much Stevie’s story as it is Michelle’s. Stevie worked as a strapper alongside Michelle, and had his own career in the racing industry.
“We were the two little kids [in the family and] we were together all the time because we were annoying to the next bunch in our family, always trying to tag along,” said Michelle. “To have him there [on the day I won the Cup] was really special.”
The theme of faith is also a big part of Ride Like a Girl, with Michelle’s Dad Paddy relying on his Catholic beliefs a lot after the loss of his wife.
“Whenever I was having a bad day,” said Michelle, “I would think back to how he got through that… [Faith] was instilled in me from as young as I can remember, and I think it’s helped me as well.”
Rachel adds, “In your darkest times you have to have faith; it’s what gets you through.”
Ride Like a Girl is in cinemas September 26th.