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'One of the horses went full pelt with me hanging on for dear life'

Five years after Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, Teresa Palmer stars in a film about her life which also features Northern Ireland born star Sam Neill. Laura Harding reports

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Theresa Palmer and Steve Payne in Ride Like A Girl

Theresa Palmer and Steve Payne in Ride Like A Girl

Press Association Images

Sam Neill

Sam Neill

Press Association Images

Theresa Palmer and Steve Payne in Ride Like A Girl

Five years ago, Michelle Payne made history as the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, known in its native Australia as "the race that stops the nation".

She was only 29 years old when she suddenly became one of the most famous people in the country and her landmark victory made global news.

Now her story has been made into a film, starring Warm Bodies actress Teresa Palmer.

"I wasn't actually watching, sadly," the Australian star (34) admits. "I was living in America and very immersed in new motherhood so I happened to miss it but I heard about it obviously, it was such a massive story, and it was very moving.

"At the time I remember my dad, who is really into gambling and going to the horses, rang me and was like, 'A woman won the Melbourne Cup!'

"It was such a big story in Australia so I started delving into Michelle's story, I was absolutely riveted by everything that she's had to navigate."

The film details how challenging it was for Payne to be a lone female jockey and the sexism she faced, even as recently as 2015.

In one scene, she is told her odds of winning are 100-1, but would be half that "if she was a bloke".

"She didn't focus on it a lot in our conversation," Palmer says. "But certainly she was met with a lot of gender bias.

"She is just so beautifully who she is and she recognises there was a lot of prejudice but I think she really let the story speak for itself. She was so humble and she didn't really like to talk about all of her successes with us, she was just really a regular girl and excited by the prospect of being able to share her story with the world."

Payne was born the youngest of 10 siblings who were raised by their father Paddy, played by Peaky Blinders actor Sam Neill in the film, after their mother died.

And her big family has a presence in the movie in the form of her brother Stevie, who was born with Down syndrome and who served as a strapper for Payne's mount Prince of Penzance for the race, and who plays himself in the film.

"Everyone loved Stevie," Neill remembers. "He's the sweetest man in the world and just a pleasure to be around and he really enjoyed making the film.

"He just seemed to enjoy every minute of it, he was always smiling and so agreeable and amusing, he's a lovely guy and so funny too."

Palmer nods in agreement. "He is sunshine," she says. "He comes in and brightens everyone's lives, he's really funny and witty and had everyone laughing and was always down for anything.

"It was a challenging experience for him to be thrown in the deep end and have to act and perform in front of the cameras playing himself but he was so effortless and he was just so organic and beautiful and a pleasure to be around."

But for all the pleasures of spending time with Payne's brother, Palmer also had to endure the pain of playing a convincing jockey. "I think I have PTSD from the experience of riding those horses so fast," she laughs. "I haven't been on a horse since. I did love it, it was wonderful, but I had a scary moment on one of the horses and it went full pelt with me hanging on for dear life and after that it felt a lot safer to be standing with my own two feet on the ground.

"I only started pre-production rehearsals three or four weeks before we started shooting so I didn't have that long to get conditioned so I did about four days a week on working with the horse, about two to three hours a day.

"Because it wasn't just about being on a horse, it was getting up on to the horse in a way that looks like I've done it every single day, every hour of the day, springing up and being light on my feet and landing lightly in the saddle.

"There was a lot of technical things that I had to learn about too, how I take the saddle off, how I put the reins on, how I hold them, so it was quite an intensive training period.

"But then there was also body conditioning as well, because I had had my second baby about 15 months prior and I hadn't been to the gym since then so I was really unfit. I was in the gym getting my arse whipped trying to get into shape to be strong enough to be able to sit up in that jockey position for a prolonged period of time."

But all that hard work paid off, according to Payne, who is now 34 and found watching the film back an emotional experience.

"What a day," she remembers. "I remember before the race looking at Stevie and thinking, 'Look at us, him and I, the two youngest, the little kids of the family, on the big stage of the Melbourne Cup'.

"Then when we were walking back after he had his arms in the air to the crowd, it was just so surreal and a moment I will never forget.

"As I was approaching the 600m mark, I remember thinking to myself, I have a real chance of winning the Melbourne Cup, all my dreams from as young as five years old.

"I think probably it was 300m when I really felt like we were going to win, I don't think he (the horse) had to carry me, I feel like I was floating on air. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life and crossing that line.

"I just remember shaking my head just thinking 'This is unbelievable' and being so happy and relieved to be able to get the job done.

"I will never forget it, right from the moment the gates opened, to the finishing line. I remember every single second."

Ride Like A Girl is available to watch now through premium video on demand platforms

Five years after Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, Teresa Palmer stars in a film about her life which also features Northern Ireland born star Sam Neill. Laura Harding reports

Belfast Telegraph