Michelle Payne knows how crazy it sounds to be grateful for a fall — but she’s grateful nonetheless.
The choice of word seems odd when you consider that she had her stomach trampled on by half a ton of racehorse just five months ago.
Three-quarters of her pancreas was severed. The surgeon saved it after cutting through layers of muscle to reach it, her liver was lacerated; and for days she recalls thinking: “I can’t go on.”
But last year’s Melbourne Cup winner told CNN: “It was a blessing in disguise as it breathed life back in. There was no media near me, I got to get back on top of things mentally.
“So in some ways it was a good thing, in some ways I’m grateful. It just may have been an extreme way to get to that point!”
Payne is no stranger to drama, last year becoming the first female winner of the Melbourne Cup, befittingly in the purple, white and green colors of the Suffragettes.
‘You have to take the good with the bad’
But much like her life — laid bare so honestly in her autobiography “Life As I Know It” — the fairytale, as she calls it, has been punctuated by massive pitfalls, most recently being replaced as the jockey of last year’s winner Prince of Penzance.
For the 31-year-old, there have been a lot of highs since that famous win, but for all her effervescent personality — her “get stuffed” reaction to her victory has gone down in horse racing folklore — being in the spotlight has not always been a pleasant experience.
And she may still get a chance to ride in the “race that stops a nation.” Australia’s Daily Telegraph recently reported that her run of good of form could see her given a chance on the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum-owned horse Qewy.
“The hardest part has been the stress in my life but you have to take the good with the bad,” she says.
At times, she finds the interviews hard, pausing for reflection to explain why before saying: “I think that looking back about things really wears me out.”
While the recent past throws up highs, in the more distant past is heartache. Her mother Mary died in a crash when she was just six years old leaving her father Paddy to raise 10 children on his own.
Then eight years ago, her sister Bridget suffered head injuries in a riding fall, had a seizure a few days later and died.
“I’ve had some tough times and it’s not been easy,” she says of the personal tragedies, “but then nothing in life is easy.
“I definitely didn’t think I would have had the crazy life I’ve had so far. I’m hoping the next 30 years aren’t as crazy as the first 30! At least it means nothing in life surprises me anymore. I shake my head at things that happen but hopefully it all settles down.”
In some ways, Payne pines for the quiet life. She is slowly moving into training — she currently has just two horses under her tutelage — and there are clearly aspirations for more success.
But for now, her future goal is to enjoy life. “The horses are a hobby and I just want to enjoy that and life on the farm having a bit of peace.”
Meeting her idol
Her life to date has been sufficiently captivating for a movie to be made by the Oscar-nominated actress and director Rachel Griffiths.
“As you can imagine, it’s quite surreal so I try not to think about it. I try not to get too involved — although they’ll tell me who they’ve got in mind to play me — and hopefully they do a great job.
“But it’s crazy. My hero’s Roger Federer and they’re not making a movie about him but they are about me.”
A clear high of the past year has been to meet her idol, whose first words regarding her Melbourne Cup triumph were simply “well done.”
“I think anybody in elite sport knows how hard it is to be successful so he just sort of congratulated me on that,” she adds. “But that was great. I never in my wildest dream imagined I’d meet Roger Federer.”
Payne is slowly coming to terms with the impact she has made on the racing world and the boost she has given women in sport.
“It’s something I take pretty seriously as I know that I looked up to other people for inspiration,” she says. “So if I can inspire people then that makes me happy.
“I had one girl come up to me. She must have been 20 or 21, and she told me she was about to drop out of university but that I inspired her to keep going. I love that.”
While she continues to be an inspiration, there are those in her own family that wish she hadn’t returned to the saddle.
Her sisters tried to persuade her to call time on her riding career, and at times she was 50-50 whether to return. But that return has been vindicated by her first comeback win in the Coleraine Cup.
“The fall was the worst week of my life,” she admits. “The pain was just incredible, such a shock. I got trodden on with my horse at full gallop and the pain was so much I had to double up on painkillers.
“I ended up hallucinating and then had to have an epidural that didn’t work, and there were tubes coming out of everywhere. It was a nightmare. I didn’t think poor me, I just wanted to survive and by day three or four I didn’t think I could go on.”
She remains in awe of the nurses and doctors who got her back on her feet, in particular the surgeon who saved her pancreas, and, as a result, “also saved me from being a diabetic for the rest of my life.”
‘I’ll never lose hope’
But her view is: “When it’s your time, it’s your time. I could be in an accident on the road today or tomorrow. Whatever will be will be. But I couldn’t not do this.”
Payne argues she has another year or two left in her as a jockey but that there was never once a concern of getting back in the saddle.
She rode for the first time in training five weeks after surgery despite not being pain free until three months after the operation. Now, she says: “I’ve never felt better.”
Fit and firing, it has given her the opportunity to dwell more on that famous win.
Whatever happens this year and beyond, that can never be taken away from her.