Michelle Payne has become the first female jockey ever to win the prestigious Melbourne Cup, assisted by her brother Stevie, the groom or “strapper,” who has Down syndrome.
Riding Pride of Penzance in Tuesday’s race, the 29-year-old Payne was considered a 100-1 long shot and yet stunned everyone by becoming the first woman to win the cup in the race’s history, since its inception in 1861.
Michelle and Stevie are two of 10 children, hailing from a tight-knit family steeped in Australian horse racing. Eight of the ten Payne children have ridden as jockeys at Australian racecourses, and two of Michelle’s brothers-in-law, Brett Prebble and Kerrin McEvoy, are past winners of the Melbourne Cup.
Michelle, the youngest of the ten, was just a toddler when her mother died after being struck by a car outside their home. She and her siblings were raised by their father Paddy, but the two youngest, Michelle and Stevie, were always particularly close, and now share an apartment together.
In an interview after the race, Michelle gave credit to her brother Stevie, remarking that “the horses just respond so well to him.”
“We were always the youngest two growing up and spent a lot of time together,” she said. “It’s great for him to have such an important role.”
A devoutly pro-life family from Ballarat in Victoria, the Paynes have been active campaigners against abortion.
According to studies, 95% of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome in Australia are aborted, even more than the estimated 92% of babies affected by the condition aborted in the United States.
In arguing for Medicare funding for abortion in 2008, Australia’s federal Parliamentary Group on Population and Development made its case on economic terms: “The financial cost of caring for a severely disabled individual is high not only for the family, but for the greater community… Adequately supporting an individual with high support needs costs the community and families far more.”
The Payne’s are trying to work against that mentality.
“I think it’s great for other people with Down syndrome—to see how capable they can be in normal life,” Michelle said.
“Stevie can pretty much do anything, and look after himself when he’s on his own,” she said.
Apparently Stevie has the same admiration for his sister. Despite the 100-1 odds against her, Stevie bet $10 she would take the race.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome