Ride Like A Girl – Insights into the making of a racing feature film

Ride Like A Girl tells the story of Ms. Michelle Payne and the trials and tribulations that led to her historic winning ride aboard Prince Of Penzance in the Race That Stops A Nation, the 2015 G1 Melbourne Cup in Australia.

Produced by Mr. Richard Keddie, who is a writer, producer and director, with a string of award-winning films behind his name, Ride Like A Girl, which became Australia’s highest-earning movie in 2019, relates Michelle’s story. The film is directed by Ms. Rachael Griffiths and stars Ms. Tessa Palmer, Mr. Sam Neill and Mr. Stevie Payne (as himself).

As part of the Plenary Session on Fan Engagement through Media, Marketing, Data and Sponsorship at the Asian Racing Conference on Wednesday afternoon, host Mr. David Eades, in conversation with both Ms. Payne and Mr. Keddie, explored the challenges and highlights of making a feature film about horse racing.

Coming from a non-racing background, Mr. Keddie found the characters he encountered during the making of the film astounding. “As a film maker, it is always about the characters”, Mr. Keddie explained. “10 kids whose mom has died. Eight of the 10 became jockeys and, like any incredible success or achievement, there is always a story behind it. Racing families are so similar to farming families. Humble people, good people”, he added.

Mr. Keddie stated that racing had such amazing characters and there was an opportunity for their stories to be better told. “You need to celebrate the wonderful world of racing and its characters. When Michelle won the Cup it meant to the guys in the industry that the little person could still win. The people in this industry work so hard, they get up so early and they just love what they do.”

How does one go about capturing the racing action, noise and sheer speed of a field of horses in full flight? With great difficulty, according to Mr. Keddie. “Noise is important for an audience. We thankfully found a very special 360-degree microphone and we did a lot of filming with that, to capture that essence and the noise of a horse race. I had decided that I would use five small cameras, but that didn’t work as the small cameras didn’t handle the jolting. I quickly discovered that it is incredibly hard to film racing. We then hired very expensive drones, but the drones couldn’t keep up with the horses so that didn’t work either.

“I had to make people understand what Michelle did and what jockeys do. It needed to be about the jockeys, to understand the danger and the brains it takes to be a really good jockey – the world has no idea.” In the end, several giant cameras, as well as some smaller ones, held on sticks by the jockeys and controlled by the crew, captured the incredible mid-race footage. “Yeah, we smashed six of those cameras”, Mr Keddie quips. The end result though is mind-blowing, with the footage showing flying grass and hooves, jockeys shouting, and horse nostrils flaring. The cameras place the viewer squarely in the midst of a bunch of racing thoroughbreds.

Ms. Payne did not play herself and Mr. Eades enquired what she initially thought of the idea of a movie being made about her life.

“Initially, it was a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of people in my family who were against a film being made about my life, about our life. When Stevie was set to play himself however, it became a whole different story. It became such an inspirational film”, she related.

There is an insert in the movie of an old video clip of a seven-year-old Michelle being asked what she wanted to do one day. “I want to win the Melbourne Cup”, comes the answer. Ms. Payne agrees that it was never an easy road to follow. “I think in this industry you have to be determined. We all had to work from a very young age. When I was five, my brother rode in the Cup and it made me very determined to achieve my dream.

“It took me five or six years to get a ride in the Cup. Eventually I did get a ride and that experience helped me when I finally won. Racing is a male-dominated sport and you have to fight your way through that. It helps that I am stubborn and determined by nature.”

And of course there is the element of danger. “One time I fell in front of a field of horses and I thought this is it, I am going to die. It is after all the only sport where an ambulance follows you around”, she added.

Mr. Keddie concluded the session by pointing out that the sport should perhaps focus not only on its equine stars, but also on its human stars, for therein lies many an untold story that will perhaps give outsiders a far better understanding of horse racing.