Robyn Whishaw

published: 10 Feb 2015 in Personality profiles

The sudden death of husband Denis in October 2004 at age 50 forced Robyn Whishaw to take on the huge job of running the family’s Armidale Stud at Carrick near Launceston at the height of the breeding season. Robyn met this challenge head on and has had great success in the past decade. She is now preparing to hand over the reins to eldest son David.

WHEN Denis Whishaw passed away a little over a decade ago the future of leading Tasmanian thoroughbred breeding ground, Armidale Stud, was unsure. In the depths of her grief his widow Robyn contemplated reducing Armidale’s holdings to just a double-handful of mares.

However, those thoughts were about the future, as initially, she had to deal with having four stallions mid-way through their season and the foaling down of 80 mares. “I suppose in some ways, it was work which kept me going,” Robyn says on reflection. “I just worked, worked, worked, had a bit of sleep and worked. The stud and property gave me something to throw my heart into and kept me focused while I tried to cope with losing Denis at such a young age.”

It was in June of the following year when she and their children, David, now 30, Camilla, 28, and Will, 24, had the opportunity to calmly consider the direction Armidale Stud should follow. “Once we had survived those initial months we discussed the future and realized that we all loved Armidale and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Robyn said. “The children were very keen to keep the farm and stud running in much the same way, but with a few minor adjustments to make it a little more manageable for me while they finished school and university. They were amazingly supportive and assisted me whenever they could, and the three of them helped me doing yearling preparation over the summer holidays. William led his first yearling through the ring at the Armidale sale in 2005, at the age of 14.”

With that support Robyn undertook to continue running the farm for another 10 years when a further assessment of the situation would take place. “Those 10 years are nearly up and I think I will begin to take a back seat and leave the running of everything to David,” Robyn said.

Over the time since his father’s death David has been playing an ever-increasing role in the management of the property and the stud. This has helped Robyn ensure the stud has been able to remain a most influential player in the Apple Isle’s racing and breeding industries. During that time Armidale’s bloodstock has won numerous state stallion premierships as well as Horse of the Year, Two Year-Old, and Broodmare of the Year titles to add to the stud’s distinguished history.

The property spreads over 404ha (1000 acres) of prime country between the junction of the Liffey and Meander rivers at Carrick and was settled by the Whishaw family nearly a century ago. However it was not until the 1960s that David Whishaw, a son of the founder, decided the time was right to begin investing in the thoroughbred industry. His prediction was that the introduction of the TAB in Tasmania, which previously had licensed off-course bookmakers, would prove to be a boost for racing and breeding in the state.

He was able to lease, from Victoria, the Macaron horse Sandastre (FR) who developed into a valuable foundation sire for the stud. Among his progeny was the outstanding race filly Peppinella, who was bred by the Whishaws and carried their colours to victory in the Tasmanian Derby, Tasmanian Oaks, Tasmanian Guineas and St. Leger.

Inspired by this and other successes David approached local businessman Robert Ferguson about joining him in importing the Alcide horse Swallow Tail II (FR) who made only a minimal impression. However they later combined to import the Roi Soliel horse Poacher’s Moon (IRE) who made a significant and sustained impact on the Tasmanian scene. He achieved a winners-to-runners ratio of 72.1% with his progeny featuring the likes of Hobart Cup winner Dark Intruder and Launceston Cup winner Brave Trespasser.

A few years after beginning to stand Poacher’s Moon the Whishaws and Robert Ferguson came up with another winner. They made a bold move, especially for that era, when they purchased a colt by Sovereign Path from the Alcide mare Ambrosia at the Tattersall’s yearling sales at Newmarket. Raced in England as St Briavels, he won six races including Listed events at Royal Ascot and Haydock before making a name for himself in Tasmania and on the mainland.

Among the first of the progeny to promote the worth of St Briavels was Tripsacum, whose efforts featured a second to Waratah Bay in the VRC St Leger in 1985 and a third in that year’s Melbourne Cup behind What a Nuisance and Koiro Corrie May.

Later came the headline performer Sydeston whose 19 wins for earnings of $3.1m featured the Caulfield Cup, Tancred Stakes, AJC Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Caulfield Stakes at the elite level. By the time Sydeston won his Caulfield Cup in 1990 Denis had taken over the running of Armidale Stud. Robyn, who had married him in 1983, was able to provide hands-on help as they set about upgrading the bloodlines of the stud’s broodmares as well as improving the pastures and fencing.

Robyn’s ability to provide positive assistance had come from spending her earliest years on a grazing property in the high country “about 20 miles” east of Oatlands, a historic town some 80km north of Hobart. A keen horsewoman, Robyn spend her childhood years doing stock work on the farm, riding at shows and in one-day events as well as attending the Tasmanian Pony and Riding Club. After doing her first six years of schooling at Oatlands she spent the next six years as a boarder at Fahan, which was then a Presbyterian Ladies College in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay.

“I played a lot of hockey and I loved athletics,” she said. “I’d been riding since before I could remember and I kept on doing that. My mother was a keen equestrian and as I got older I did eventing, dressage and a bit of show jumping.” On leaving Fahan she spent six months at home on the farm helping her father Michael before moving across to Melbourne. “I’d sold a couple of my horses to friends in Melbourne and I went across to ride at the Royal, and followed the show circuit for about four months.”

At that stage she was tinkering with the idea of becoming a veterinarian, but with only one student being chosen from Tasmania each year to undertake a course in Melbourne that did not eventuate. An opportunity opened up though when she received a scholarship to study for a four-year Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Tasmania in Launceston. “By doing that I was able to go home at weekends to help my father on the farm,” she said. On securing the degree Robyn began teaching in 1981, at a small country school at Bracknell in the north of the state. Her elder brother Rod Lester, she has younger brothers Tim and Mont, had established the Starston Stud at nearby Epping Forest where he stood the Crocket horse Burglar (GB), who had won the July Stakes at Newmarket.

“I would help Rod on the stud and travel each day to teach. That went on for a year before I went overseas with a girlfriend. As you do we went all around England, Europe, Scandinavia and America. Denis was keen on me and also came overseas at the same time, as he was looking for a new stallion for the stud and also had a wedding in Sweden to attend as best man. Whilst away we met a couple of times to do some sightseeing and our relationship developed from there.”

After leaving Friends School, in North Hobart, Denis had attended the Hawkesbury Agricultural College and graduated with a degree in agriculture before heading home to help his father in running the farm, the dairy and horse stud. Although not particularly interested in horses before doing his course, he soon became passionate about racing and the stud. Robyn says he had a “quite unflappable manner around the thoroughbreds, which made him a natural”.

He also “loved” pedigrees, and one of his favourite pastimes was sitting and reading the Timeform annual trying to find a prospective stallion for the stud. After their marriage Robyn continued to teach until David was born in 1984.

“Once David was born I became a full-time Mum while also helping on the farm which was very busy. Sandastre had just died, but we had a lot of mares by him. Dear old Poacher’s Moon was going strongly, Swallow Tail was here and we had Blessington as well as Valve, who was a Better Boy horse. Valve was a really versatile sire. He threw Tasmanian Derby winners, Cup winners and good jumpers.”

Then in 1990 Denis and Robyn joined with Woodlawn Park Stud, Camoquill Stud and Glenville Stud to import Northern Chateau (USA), who was by Northern Dancer from the Chateaugay mare Fair Arabella. “It was the first time Tasmanian studs had joined together to import a stallion. Although Northern Chateau only had limited success he was third leading first year sire, behind Danehill, in the 1993-94 season.

“That was quite a feat considering the prizemoney in Tasmania. Even though Northern Chateau wasn’t an outstanding success, all through the years we seem to have been fortunate to stand stallions who have done quite well. Whether that has been through good judgment or good luck or a combination of both I’m not sure.”

Among them has been Weasel Clause, by Golden Slipper winner and champion sire Marscay from the Farnworth mare Fairy Talk. This horse was purchased by “great friends” Ken and Jenny Breese from the dispersal sale of Floyd Podgornik’s thoroughbred holdings, and his most notable representative was Weasel Will who won successive renewals of the Crystal Mile at Moonee Valley. Weasel Will also went down by only a head to Testa Rossa in the Emirates Stakes-Gr.1 at Flemington and was third to Assertive Lad and Shogun Lodge in the Doncaster Handicap-Gr.1 at Randwick in 2001.

“Weasel Clause was another success story being leading sire on a number of occasions and also leading two year-old sire,” Robyn said. “Weasel Will’s dam La Tourelle, who also produced the St Leger winner Dartington, was another of our Broodmares of the Year. We also bred and raced a filly by Weasel Clause named Escapada who was a stakes winner of five races at two. She was leading two year-old of her year in Tasmania.”

The Miswaki horse Aliocha (USA), who had been a Gr.3 winner at Maisons-Laffite and a Listed winner at Evry, was also successful at stud for the Whishaw family, earning a place on Armidale’s honour roll. He sired 174 winners from 259 runners featuring Windigo, who went on quite a spree at six capturing the MRC Mercedes-Benz Sprint, SAJC Honda Stakes and MRC Bletchingly Stakes.

“Aliocha was a good horse for us, really good,” Robyn said. “Again he was leading sire on a number of occasions and had such a very good winners-to-runners ratio.” As the new century was opening the Whishaws began enjoying a winning streak with the progeny of Ladoni (GB) who was a multiple stakes winner in Germany by Danehill. “Very early in the piece Denis decided Danehill would make a sire of sires, so that why we went after Ladoni. I think Ladoni was actually only the second Danehill horse to stand in the southern hemisphere after Danzero, who started standing at Arrowfield in 1995. Denis rang Ken and Jenny Breese to see whether they would go halves in purchasing the horse and fortunately they said yes.”

Ladoni had sired a long list of stakes winners and won Tasmanian sires’ premiership when in the year of Denis’s death a filly came from his covering of the Whishaw’s Coronation Day mare Queen’s Own. That was the exceptionally consistent and tenacious performer Lady Lynette, who became a Gr.1-placed winner of races such as the VRC Rose of Kingston Stakes and MVRC Tesio Stakes twice. With 14 wins, six in black type events, and 18 placings, of which 12 were in stakes races, she amassed $1.3m in prizemoney and earned her dam a Tasmanian Broodmare of the Year award.

The impeccably bred Savoire Vivre (GB) was the next addition to the roster. Bluebloods editor David Bay recalls that in 2001 he had seen Savoire Vivre entered in a Tattersall’s sale and urged Denis and Robyn to try and buy him. “Denis and I had become good friends while he was a director of the Australian Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association and I was secretary,” David said.

“I fell in love with Savoire Vivre’s pedigree, being by a champion sire (Sadler’s Wells) from a mare (Oh So Sharp by Kris), who had won the Triple Crown of 1000 Guineas, Oaks and St. Leger and traced to Mumtaz Mahal. Dennis contacted Jenny McAlpine, the Tattersall’s representative in Australia, to see whether the horse, who was a winner and Group placed in just three starts, could be bought privately, and luckily Sheikh Mohammed agreed.”

Ken and Jenny Breese bought a half-share of Savoire Vivre, who was third leading first crop sire behind Galileo and Show a Heart in 2005-06. He has played his part for Armidale by siring stakes horses such as The Cleaner, Life to the Full, Rustia, Vivre Le Nett, Rhumb Line, Saval Prince, Iggimacool, Methuselah, What Life Brings and Who’s Ya Daddy. Just before Denis died David Bay acted for the Whishaws in the purchase of the Miswaki horse Tough Speed (USA), who had been a Gr.3 winner at Doncaster. At the same time sell dumps helps you survive “I knew Denis had seen Tough Speed’s record in Timeform, as I had,” he said. “I knew the horse was available to buy and advised Denis and Robyn on the purchase.”

Tough Speed, who is standing alongside Armidale’s latest addition, the Gr.3 winner Needs Further (Encosta de Lago-Crowned Glory by Danehill (USA)), has also played a significant part by siring the Tasmanian Stakes winners Black ‘N’ Tough, Lyell, Banco Mo and Tough Chik.

Then on October 11 of 2004 tragedy struck when Denis, at just 50, suffered a massive heart attack while he was doing a horse’s feet on the stud. “I was with him at the time, thank goodness, and gave him CPR until the ambulance arrived, but the paramedics said afterwards that nothing would have saved him,” Robyn said. “I was in total shock because he was very fit, in apparently good health, not overweight and had never smoked.

“Denis and I had always done everything together, as we loved working with each other. “Fortunately being an outdoors girl I had enough knowledge to continue to run the place, but there were many late night calls to David in Hobart for instructions with me trying to fix or prime a pump. Looking back you really don’t know how you survived such a difficult time.

“Thankfully we had fantastic support from our family, friends and staff, and my dear Dad who was living nearby . . . it was just amazing. At the time we were standing Ladoni, Savoire Vivre, Telesto (USA) and Tough Speed as well as having around 200 mares on the stud and around 60 yearlings as well. We also had a herd of about 100 beef cattle, so there was a lot to do.”

In 2005 after a meeting with the trustees, Robyn, David, Camilla and Will sat down to discuss the future, which led to the formation of the 10-year plan. The issue was complicated because David was studying for a Bachelor of Agriculture degree at university in Hobart; Camilla was about to embark on a four-year course in natural medicine, and Will was still at school.

“David did very well in his course, and once he completed his degree he came back to the farm and began managing the property while I looked after the stud,” Robyn said. “He has totally revamped the irrigation system and we grow a lot of crops including our own lucerne, barley, peas, beans and poppies, so our income is now diversified, rather than relying on the stud as we had done in the past.

“In the interim Camilla has completed her course in natural medicine in Melbourne. She was then chosen for the two-year Darley Flying Start course and I went over to Ireland for her graduation last July. Although Camilla is now working at Vinery, long term she plans to set up her own business combining natural treatments and natural therapies for horses.”

Will, who had to grow up quickly after losing his father at such a young age, is a field officer for Tasmanian Alkaloids, which is a worldwide distributor of controlled substances providing medical opiates from patented poppy varieties. “Will has a very good job and is busy, but he still helps on the farm when he can. He turns 25 in June and that’s when the 10 years of our plan is up.

“That’s also when David will most likely take over the management of both the farm and the stud. David and his partner Rhiannon, who is a very competent young horsewoman, are keen to continue standing stallions, although I am not sure about the future viability of standing stallions in Tasmania.

“The youngsters are keen, hard-working, optimistic and passionate, which are the qualities you need to survive in this challenging industry so I sincerely wish they can continue our history of success in developing young stallions. I hope to continue to help where I can, perhaps overseeing what’s happening, dealing with clients, tending to the large garden at Armidale, and photographing the horses which is something I love.” n