With Great Northern Day just around the corner (sadly no longer at Ellerslie due to the current alert level in Auckland) we felt it only fitting to have a chat to one half of the historic dead heat, Michelle Strawbridge (nee Hopkins).
Michelle was born on the North Shore of Auckland and her parents said she was always horse mad. They helped Michelle get her first pony when Michelle was about 10 and they bought it from behind the Albany Pub for $175!
Whilst perhaps an inauspicious start to the relationship (the pub isn’t usually the source of great partnerships!) the pony loved to jump and Michelle was able to take her to pony club, cementing her love of horses.
Michelle’s love of horses stayed with her and she completed her schooling in her sixth form year, after which her parents encouraged her to get a job. A conversation with a friend lead to her interviewing for a job in Cambridge to work on a farm with racehorses and there was the chance to be a jumps jockey if she was keen enough…and there started what would be a lifelong relationship with Ken and Anne Browne.
Michelle with Ken & Ann Browne
Michelle said “I have worked for Mr and Mrs Browne for many years. It was one of the best places I could have gone to achieve as much as I did. Mrs Browne was and is still like a second mother to me. I have learnt so much from Mr and Mrs Browne and loved all the years I spent on the farm riding horses, doing stockwork and getting to learn a lot. When I look back now, I wouldn't change a thing.”
We asked her to dig into the memory banks and let us know her thoughts on all things Great Northern…
What’s your earliest Great Northern memory? Has the race been a part of your life for many years?
My first memories of the Great Northern was getting to ride a horse called Snub, this was early in my career. Mr Browne had said it would be great to have the experience to ride in the race and get a taste of it. He didn't think it was a winning chance but I could learn a lot. After that I was hooked.
Is dead heating the race your favourite Great Northern memory? If so, can you describe what it was like? How did you feel? If not, what is your favourite Great Northern memory?
The Great Northern double would be my biggest highlight in my career. It's still quite unbelievable. It was the most thrilling experience I could have dreamed of in racing. It’s the two races as a jumps jockey you would love to win.
Did you have a favourite runner/mount?
There are many wonderful horses that really stand out and have given me so many great memories. Just to name a few; Smart Hunter, Wanderlust, Noble Glory, Drizzle, Flash Hunter, Crescent, but I could still name many more, the list could go on and on.
Michelle aboard Smart Hunter
How does it feel to be a written into such a significant race’s history? Your dead heat is written about pretty widely as one of (if not the) most epic moments of the race.
It means a lot to me to be written into the history books as I feel I have really achieved something in racing. Furthermore, to have my name as the Great Northern double winner is really special as the feat can’t be done again now the races are run on the same day.
Another significant milestone was becoming the first woman to win the jumps “double” (being the Great Northern Hurdle and Steeplechase). What was it like competing as a woman and what is your advice to women today who’d like to give it a go?
A lot of people have asked what it was like riding against the males and to be honest, once you have proved yourself to be an equal and someone they can’t push around I never thought anything of it.
You have to give as good as you’ve got and you can’t give an inch. Winning was what I wanted.
I would say to any of the females wanting to give racing ago, if you put in the hard yards anything is possible.
Has any one person shaped your career more than others? If so, how?
I was very lucky in racing to have people like Mr and Mrs Browne to talk to and help my riding improve. Mr Browne always took the time to discuss the races before and after. Quite often I would have a plan A, B and C to ride too.
I certainly had some amazing people to work with along the way at Brownes’, people who are still so special to me.
To this day I look to Mrs Browne if I ever have a problem with a horse and I ask her what she’d do as she has an amazing knowledge of everything there is to know about them.
I’m so grateful for the many things I’ve achieved and couldn't have done them without Mr and Mrs Browne and also my very supportive parents who love to come and watch whenever they can.
Now, this wouldn’t be an Ellerslie interview without throwing a few wildcard questions in the mix so….
Are you a Netflix/Neon/Amazon Prime fan or classic TV fan?
I would have to say I am a little bit of a Netflix fan. I don't get a lot of time to watch TV but I do love a good movie or series.
What are you watching on TV at the moment?
I do enjoy watching The Chase, Country Calendar and Celebrity Treasure Island. And like any good Kiwi, I love watching the All Blacks and the Silver Ferns.
To be honest though most of my free time is spent out with my two girls and their ponies.
If you could have any three people to dinner, who would it be and why?
If I could have any 3 people to dinner I would invite Mrs Browne and my Mum and Dad to just let them know how much I appreciate everything they have done for me for so many years. Through broken bones and tough times they were always there. Good and bad, I always knew they were only a phone call away.
What would your ‘go to’ dish be?
My go to dish would be the yummy Tegal Louisiana chicken with homemade salad and shoestring fries. Or I’d call up my mother-in-law Catherine Strawbridge. She always puts on the most amazing meals every Sunday night and it’s something I always look forward to.
If you weren’t a jockey, what would you be?
Growing up I had always wanted to be a sports teacher or an aerobics instructor.
Imagine you’re representing NZ at the Olympics, what sport are you playing?
If I could do anything and compete at the Olympics, I would love to do the Eventing or Show Jumping. I do love to watch the Olympics and feel so proud to be a Kiwi.
If you asked your friends to say what you’re known for, what would it be?
They would say I was an honest, hard working person who loves her horses and is very competitive!
And finally, why should people come to a day at the races – specifically Great Northern Day?
It's such a fun day out for a group of friends and they get to spend the day watching the exciting jumps racing. The Great Northern is one meeting we love to go and watch. Good horses and great racing – what more could you want?!
If you’re looking for Michelle these days she can still be found riding 10-15 horses a day – it’s true what they say, once you’ve been bitten by the racing bug, you’re in it for life!
Unfortunately Great Northern Day has been relocated to Te Aroha Racecourse due to alert levels in Auckland, preventing Ellerslie from celebrating the final 'hurrah' of the hill. To read the release from NZTR, click here.
To read more of our Great Northern Day content, click here.