Michelle Payne story the surprise movie hit of the year - and you can see why

Teresa Palmer, who plays Michelle Payne, and Sam Neill, who plays her father, in a scene from Ride Like A Girl

With this year’s Melbourne Cup taking place on Tuesday, JA McGrath takes a look at the new movie Ride Like A Girl, the true story of jockey Michelle Payne, the first (and only) female to ride a winner of the ‘Race that stops a nation’, which has surprised critics by becoming the highest grossing Australian film of the year to date.



Box office takings for Ride Like A Girl were at A$9.6m up to the end of October, putting the film on track to ultimately achieve around A$12m, which places it in an elite category of Australian productions.

Released to coincide with the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, the emotion-charged movie opens with battling trainer Paddy Payne, the father of ten, tragically losing his wife in a car crash and his eldest daughter as the result of a track fall.

Eight of the ten Paynes became jockeys, and the youngest, Michelle, who was six months when her mother died, is shown at a very early age expressing her ambition “to win the Melbourne Cup”.

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Rachel Griffiths, the Academy Award-nominated actor directing for the first time, wanted to create the best Australian sports movie in the style of an old-fashioned matinee film, and she has gone a long way towards pulling it off.

The stand-out features of the movie are the gripping race sequences, which are the most realistic yet seen on the screen, plus the superb performance of Teresa Palmer, who plays the starring role of Michelle.

Stevie Payne, Michelle’s brother and Cup winner Prince Of Penzance’s groom (strapper), plays himself, and, as Griffiths admitted to actor Sam Neill (Paddy Payne), Stevie gets all the best lines in the film.

One of the trickiest issues with which the producers found themselves dealing during post-production was learning that Darren Weir, the trainer of Prince Of Penzance, had been disqualified from racing for four years for being found in possession of an illegal electrical device known as a ‘jigger’ — and, more recently, that he faces criminal charges of animal cruelty.

Weir, while conspicuous in the film, is not given anywhere near the acknowledgement that many feared. And, with such success at the box office, his presence does not appear to have been detrimental. 

An unfortunate blip in the storyline is that Michelle wins the Moonee Valley Cup on Prince Of Penzance and is suspended for 20 meetings for causing interference, which of course would have ruled her out of riding in the Melbourne Cup nine days later. 

However, the film jumps to her having a verbal showdown with the owners in a restaurant … and then marching on to Flemington racecourse on Cup Day.

So, did she win an appeal against the ban? The film fails to show how she got to be riding on Cup day.

In real life, Payne finished second on Prince Of Penzance in the Moonee Valley Cup, beaten half a length by The United States. Critics claimed that, after leading, she then went for home too early on the gelding. 

It is rare to find a really good racing film these days — there are usually too many flaws — but this is an excellent telling of a human interest story that will appeal to all audiences, racing specialists included. 

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