Michelle Payne on the hectic, focused life of a champion jockey. By Richard Cooke.


Hoop dreams: Michelle Payne, 29, jockey

The older I get, the more admiration I have for the older jockeys. Especially ones like Damien Oliver, who’s at the top. You have to be at the top of your game every race. If you’re not, you quickly slack off and people won’t put you on [their horses]. For someone like Oliver, who comes back every year and does his best… I don’t think the general public realise. 

I’ve had more than 7000 races. That’s 20 and 30 rides a week, just in races. Sometimes I might ride 25 horses in a day at trackwork and doing trials. I don’t know how many horses I’d ride a week.

It’s crazy, it’s absolutely hectic. You don’t really have an outside life. You have to be a little bit like a hermit. Otherwise it’s hard to stay focused and to get the opportunities. 

You never stop learning. Even now, I always go back and watch the good jockeys. You’re always picking things up. It’s so complex. There’s so much to learn about tactics, about horses, about the ways trainers train, other jockeys, the track – everything. That’s what I love about it. All of these things might win you a race.

My sister said I was missing the best years of my life. She used to ride, then went to university and studied to become an accountant. You don’t really get to party with your friends or anything like that, but I guess that’s a sacrifice I was prepared to make to follow my dream. Racing is my passion and I’ve been able to have a good life anyway. I’ve been able to travel the world, so I’m not complaining.

Growing up, I watched all of my brothers and sisters become jockeys or trainers. Racing was our life. My dad was like, “If you’re going to do it, you have to give it everything you’ve got. No distractions.” My dad never really pushed me into riding [but] it was all I wanted to do. 

My dad would have been happy to see me do something else. Stay at school, not do a job that was so dangerous. Obviously, he saw all the other kids have falls and he didn’t want [me to get injured]. But the more I showed how keen I was, the more helpful he was. 

Falls are a subject jockeys avoid speaking about. Everybody has respect for everyone else, and what they’ve been through with their injuries and how bad it can be. When another jockey falls, it’s like you can feel it in your stomach. Even talking about it – if you’re speaking with other jockeys – everyone starts getting that feeling. 

Sometimes going into races you’ve been up since 3 o’clock in the morning. You haven’t really eaten, because you might have had to lose a kilo or whatever before the races, and you can’t drink coffee. You’re basically struggling like anything to stay awake going into the races, but then you get there and you switch on and the adrenalin kicks in. You’ve got a job to do. People pay a lot of money for these horses. You’ve been employed to do the best job you can for them.

Even after 7000 races, you definitely still get the same adrenalin rush. I’ve found my nerves have got a lot better as I’ve got older and more experienced and more confident that you’re able to do a really good job for the trainers and the owners you’re riding for. 

But sometimes you’ll look at a race and think, “This is going to be tricky.” You’re going to need a lot of luck and it might be a disaster. That’s when I get nervous. When you can’t see a way around how you’re going to beat the odds, when it just looks impossible, basically. But you’ve just got to block that out, go out there, and hope for the best. If it comes off, it’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s racing. It’s one of those things.

The punters get it wrong a lot of the time. Basically, people speak to their pocket. Sometimes, for a jockey, it’s hard to understand how they don’t realise that we want the same outcome as them. We work every day to ride winners, work ridiculous hours. Something might not go to plan and they’re slagging you off like you meant for that to happen. That’s what I don’t understand. Yeah, you lost your money, but we didn’t want that to happen. The worst is Twitter. It’s too hard to explain.

How did my dad raise 10 kids by himself? [Michelle’s mother died in a car accident when Michelle was six months old.] It’s something we look back on now and we just have such a respect for him and what he did. Obviously, at the time, we had to always work really hard. I remember thinking, “My friends don’t have to do this. It’s not fair.” But now we look back and think, “What an amazing man.” What an amazing job he did. He always had a good, positive outlook even when things were as bad as they could be.

1 . This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Girls’ Day Out

Saturday, 1st race 12.25pm (AEST), Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne

• AFL: Qualifying Final – Fremantle Dockers v Sydney Swans

Saturday, 1.20pm (AWST), Domain Stadium, Perth

• NRL: Qualifying Final – Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland Cowboys

Saturday, 7.55pm (AEST), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

• Tennis – US Open Singles Finals

Women’s: Sunday, 4am (AEST); men’s: Monday, 5.30am (AEST), New York

• V8 Supercars: Sandown 500 Championship

Sunday, 1.25pm (AEST), Sandown Raceway, Springvale, Vic

• Cricket: 5th ODI – Australia v England 

Sunday, 7.30pm (AEST), Old Trafford, Manchester, England

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "Hoop dreams".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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