It’s the race that stops the nation, and each year punters stake their money on the horse they believe will win the Melbourne Cup. With the prospect of winning big, the human side of competing in the Cup is often lost amongst conversations of betting odds and race favourites. Yet, for the highly disciplined and trained jockeys, stepping out on the field for the first time is a culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication. While the punters risk going home with a little less money, for the jockeys, mounting up means risking their careers and lives.
Capturing the personal side of competing in the Cup, Ride Like A Girl puts the spotlight on Michelle Payne, who overcame personal and public adversary to become the first female jockey to win the Cup in 2015. Growing up in a horse racing family, Payne had to prove from a young age that she could hold her own in a male dominated sport, both on the track and outside it. Her struggle and eventual triumph are the primary focus of the film, and it makes for a rousing, if familiar, underdog tale that hits the mark more often than not.
As the film makes clear, her success wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her family and Ride Like Girl excels in establishing the family dynamic that was an integral part of her victory. In particular, the close bond she shares with her widowed father (Sam Neil) and her younger brother who has down-syndrome, Stevie (played by himself), is put into the spotlight equally as much as her racing achievements. Seeing her family act as her bedrock and voice of caution through thick and thin offers a fascinating insight into Payne’s personal life that contextualises her victory as both a personal and family achievement.
Where the film feels a little underdeveloped is in its exploration of Payne’s character (played by Teresa Palmer). The film is unabashedly earnest in portraying her overcoming prejudice and sexism that it affords little self-reflexivity to her internal struggles. From naysayers on and off-track to the doubts of her own family, the film focuses on Payne overcoming external challenges that, while completely valid, feel a little reductive of a story that revolves around dedicating one’s life to a single pursuit. Given that the outcome of the story is well-known history, a bit more personal introspection would have helped Payne’s victory feel like less of a forgone conclusion that the film dutifully arrives at. However, in attempt to empower its main character, Ride Like a Girl feels reticent to include anything that could potentially disempower her.
Ultimately, Ride Like A Girl doesn’t probe too deeply into its subject but it still offers an earnest and touching tribute to an Australian sports champion that should satisfy fans of fact-based inspirational stories. As a tale of triumph, it’s the film equivalent of a victory lap, unchallenging but satisfying.
Words by Dominic Kwaczynski