14 years ago, whilst sitting an Agricultural Science exam at Hobart University, teenager David Whishaw received the worst news of his life.
An unexpected phone call came through advising that his father Denis had died.
A fit and active man, 50-year-old Denis was trimming a horse’s feet at the family’s Thoroughbred breeding farm, Armidale Stud. The fractious youngster suddenly lashed out and kicked him and the force of the blow triggered a fatal heart attack.
“It came out of the blue and rocked our family. It was a huge shock to all of us.” - David Whishaw
“It came out of the blue and rocked our family. It was a huge shock to all of us," said David.
“It was very difficult for all of us and probably for my mother the most difficult as they were very close and ran the business as a partnership."
Named after his grandfather and the founder of Tasmania’s famed Armidale Stud, David was just 19-years-old when the tragedy struck. He says it still feels like “yesterday”. Evidently, the pain of the loss of his father is still, at times, overwhelming. Inheriting the sudden responsibility to keep the family farm going probably hasn’t allowed him much time to stop for too long and process the grief.
“Being the leading stud in the state at the time Mum (Robyn) wanted to keep it going for her children. We were all in a difficult position and I had to grow up very quickly. I went from son to business partner and from being a brother to more like a senior fatherly figure.”
A change in direction
The Tasmanian racing and breeding industry rallied strongly behind the highly respected family.
“The industry was wonderful. The support we received was huge and really probably the only thing that kept us going at times.”
"The support we received was huge and really probably the only thing that kept us going at times.” - David Whishaw
But that support could only extend so far. The rest was up to them as a family unit to navigate their way through the plight and at times that was not an easy journey.
“We didn't make wonderfully sensible business decisions and a lot of things were done on sentiment and emotion rather than business sense and there was no doubting our horse business took a turn for the worst in 2007.”
“When the Government sold the TOTE and the lack of confidence hit, we were still coming to terms with dad’s death.”
So, Robyn decided that it was probably best to scale down Armidale Stud and turn it into a boutique operation.
“Mum encouraged us to get out of stallions and become boutique with ten or so mares and do away with stallions, staff and all the heartache that goes with it.”
Armidale Stud had an eight-year hiatus from investing in stallions. But during that period David’s burning desire to continue his father and grandfather’s legacy never left him so they eventually revisited the idea of getting involved in that side of the breeding business again.
"I guess everyone that breeds or races horses is a dreamer and glass half full person." - David Whishaw
“I guess everyone that breeds or races horses is a dreamer and glass half full person and we all keep getting out of bed dreaming that we will make a difference and breed or own a Group 1 winner or play a part of their life.”
“There were a lot of round table decisions and we agreed it wasn’t the best thing financially but we were really keen to give it a crack. I felt it was a cop out after two generations of breeding horses if I was too miserable to give it a go.”
Needs Further joins Armidale
Soon after the family reached the decision to get back in the stallion game, Randwick Bloodstock’s Brett Howard presented the family with a prospect by the name of Needs Further.
“Brett found the horse for us. We were lucky at the time Encosta De Lago was on the nose. Sons of Encosta hadn't set the world on fire we were lucky when we spoke to Brett he said I’ve got the perfect horse with a great pedigree, he’s a nice type not super sexy but he will do a good job for you down in Tassie.”
"I’ve got the perfect horse with a great pedigree, he’s a nice type not super sexy but he will do a good job for you down in Tassie.” - RBA's Brett Howard
“I then looked at the pedigree and I could hear my father say wherever possible if you can have other stallions in the immediate pedigree and a depth of bloodline you will go a long way to making a stallion. Needs Further hails from Zabeel’s family and Baryshnikov was staring at me on the page too,” said David.
Six seasons later and Needs Further (Encosta De Lago x Crowned Glory) has shot to prominence in the Australian stallion ranks for being the sire of recent Group 1 Australian Guineas winner and All-Star Mile contender Mystic Journey. She’s now a history maker being the first Tasmanian trained horse in 133 years to win a Group 1 race on the mainland of Australia.
“Days like the other Saturday and this one coming are what you get out of bed for and numb those hardships that you go through.”
When I ask David how his mother Robyn felt after Mystic Journey won the Australian Guineas he falls silent, takes a deep breath and through choking tears he manages to say “It was a very overwhelming experience for mum watching from the farm gate. She was very emotional, she’s proud and pleased that as a family we decided to stick it out.”
"She was very emotional, she’s proud and pleased that as a family we decided to stick it out." - David Whishaw
“She sent me a text message after the race and said your father and your grandfather would be very proud.”
They certainly would be proud. Needs Further was a stallion the Whishaws rolled the dice on and that gamble is now paying dividends. The 11-year-old’s statistics are impressive. He’s had 119 named foals for 66 starters and 29 individual winners. Mystic Journey is obviously the leading light but he’s got a talented 2-year-old daughter racing in Tasmania, recent Gold Sovereign Stakes (Listed) winner Mystical Pursuit.
Inevitably, since the heady success of Mystic Journey major farms in NSW and Victoria have expressed interest in Needs Further.
“I have been overwhelmed. All the local breeders have rung up requesting to book him in at last year’s service fee which has been grand and a lot of big studs from Victoria and NSW have phoned us about potentially buying him or standing him on the mainland.”
“I am finding that a touch confronting because my passion lies with breeding in Tassie. I think it’s such wonderful breeding country and I love our local industry and participants but I also understand he deserves a good book of mares and decent numbers.”
For now David and his family have put those conversations on hold and are wholly focussed on enjoying the journey with the filly everyone’s calling the Winx of Tassie.
“We have a filly off the farm running around for $5 Million on Saturday which is half of Tassie racing’s stakes for the entire year all in one day. We are really looking forward to it.”
“We have a filly off the farm running around for $5 Million on Saturday which is half of Tassie racing’s stakes for the entire year all in one day." - David Whishaw
Win, lose or draw in the All-Star Mile at Flemington on Saturday the Whishaws are happy to have been able to stick it out and get this far as breeders from the Apple Isle.
“When you grow up with horses you can’t imagine life without horses. They are part of your makeup and your DNA. I think it would be a very sad day when there are not horses running around the paddocks at Armidale.”
“When you get a chance to take a deep breath and look around there is something very majestic about it. Three generations who poured their heart and soul into a stud,” said David proudly.
Playing a part in the story of Mystic Journey represents everything the Whishaw family has dreamed of and worked hard towards since David’s great grandfather settled Armidale 100 years ago. Should she win the All-Star Mile tomorrow there will not be a dry eye at headquarters.