I’m not really into sport but I do like a good sporting biopic. I love all that overcoming-the-odds stuff about humble beginnings, early promise, single-minded pursuit of the dream, courage in the face of adversity etc etc. I don’t care if all these tropes are clichés, as long as they’re basically true. I want to thrill to the joy of the deserving winners, I want to shed tears of joy when they prove their detractors wrong, tell them to ‘get stuffed’, and take home the big prize!
Ride Like A Girl, the story of how in 2015 Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, should have fit the bill. I damned near teared up just watching the trailer. Bingo, I thought.
So why didn’t I enjoy the film as much as I expected? Why did I leave the cinema feeling it was a bit of an also-ran in the Sporting Triumph Tearjerker Stakes?
It’s not as though director Rachel Griffiths picked the wrong story for her directorial debut. There was adversity aplenty for Michelle Payne to overcome on her way to winning the Cup, most seriously a bad head injury sustained in an early career fall, but most famously the sexism of an industry that didn’t think a girl could win the big race.
The trouble is, the fact that she DID win virtually dictated that the sex/gender issue take centre stage even if – and I almost hesitate to say this for fear of being labelled insufficiently supportive of a new feminist heroine – it wasn’t all that much of a big deal. Payne was not the first female jockey to win a major race. Her own sisters had had considerable success in the field. The number of female jockeys was on the rise. In the long run, one of them would have stayed the distance. (Sorry about all these racing puns.)
It’s as though in focussing on this one element of the story, Griffiths has neglected other important aspects, foremost being that Payne’s Cup mount – Prince of Penzance – won at odds of 100 to one! How often does that happen in the Melbourne Cup? We see her meeting her Prince and deciding instantly that he’s ‘the one’, but what made her so confident he’d win, apart from the fact that she’s ridden him up and down picturesque surf beaches a few times, and that she’s got her dead mother and sister looking after them both from their spot in heaven?
I don’t mean to sound cynical; such scenes have their place and it’s true that Payne invoked the spirit of her sister Brigid, killed in a training fall in 2007. But I wanted to know more about why she got the ride on Prince of Penzance in the first place. Was it because they didn’t think she or the Prince could win? Surely this would have added to the drama, given it’s about her being up against sexism in the industry.
One clue here is that Ride Like A Girl was financially backed by Victoria Racing and Tabcorp. They insist there was no editorial input but the film seems just a little bit too blithe about the dark side of racing.
Animal cruelty, for one thing: the number of horses that are killed or injured in racing, the continued use of the whip. Payne herself raised the whip in triumph after her historic Cup win. Okay, it’s her personal story, not a documentary expose. But you’d think it might have got a mention, given there have been protests at racecourses, including Flemington.
The story tiptoes around other hot-button issues: the dangerous nature of the sport, the damaging weight loss regimens, corruption scandals. Trainer Darren Weir, who put Payne on Prince of Penzance and is implicitly praised in the movie for taking a chance on her, is embroiled in legal action over using illegal ‘jiggers’ to improve the performance of his horses, and champion jockey Damien Oliver, who figures indirectly in the story, was banned at one stage for betting on a horse that beat the one he was riding! Michelle Payne herself has been convicted of consuming a banned substance, although this is not considered a major offence and she took full responsibility.
As for the inherent dangers of the sport, consider this: nine out of the last ten jockey deaths have been women. Two women jockeys were killed just a few weeks ago within days of each other. Payne herself had serious falls other than the 2004 one depicted in the movie, and since her Cup win had yet another bad fall and has basically given away riding in favour of training.
To be fair, the film does show the other Payne sisters giving up riding because of the danger, but it does seem to valorise Payne’s choice to defy the risks while downplaying the consequences of that choice.
These things aside, there were enjoyable moments. I loved the nuns – cue Magda Szubanski’s cameo – putting all their kitty on Payne and the Prince. Did that really happen? Oh all right, it doesn’t matter.
Griffiths employed specialist directors to shoot the racing scenes, and they’re good. Nothing like the thunder of hooves to summon the blood. And there’s human drama: in TV race replays the riders and mounts look almost like mechanical toys but up close it’s all shouting and shoving and frantic, er, jockeying for position.
The family stuff is good but it too suffers from the foregrounding of the sexism issue, which I’m starting to think was the least interesting part of the story. Reading about them afterwards it occurred to me that the Paynes are the Kennedys of Australian racing: clannish, prodigiously gifted, blighted by tragedy.
They are devout Catholics. Her mother died in a car crash when Michelle was a baby and her father, the trainer Paddy Payne, was left with ten kids to raise, the youngest two being Michelle and Stevie, her Down Syndrome brother who plays himself in the film.
They are all absorbed with horses and the racing industry. All the kids, including the girls, become jockeys or trainers or, in Stevie’s case, strappers. Such an interesting family culture. How does this happen? As with the Kennedys, there are extraordinary, almost mythical elements to their story, but none of that is conveyed here. Perhaps they should have their own movie, or even a TV miniseries. And the Kiwis should make it. The Paynes are from New Zealand; only Michelle and Stevie were born in Australia.
Prince of Penzance was born in New Zealand too. The end credits don’t say what happened to him but I looked it up. He’s retired now after breaking his leg. They could have fixed it and kept him racing but his connections took pity on him and he’s living out his retirement on Darren Weir’s farm. Hooray – happy ending!
And yes, I did get to cry. It was during a scene where….. Well, y’see, we have Michelle as a little girl being drilled by dad Paddy on Melbourne Cup stats – winners, jockeys, trainers, odds – and she’s flawless. After the bad fall where she fractures her skull, the medicos are asking her questions like ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘how many fingers am I putting up?’ She stares blankly. But then Paddy comes along and asks ‘who won the Cup in 1983?’ or whenever, and she answers instantly and correctly. Did this happen? Who cares! Like the business with the nuns it’s one of those true-to-the-spirit details that enrich the story, and it did the trick for me.