Here at Rural Room we know that running a farm is taxing at the best of times. Your livelihood is largely contingent on Mother Nature and your work can’t be left at the door when you clock off. It’s with you every moment of every day – even in the middle of the night when you abandon bed to nurse a sick yearling or help a mare deliver her foal in the freezing cold. The challenges are such that the odds of keeping a farm in the same family for consecutive decades are slim to none. That’s what makes the 150 Year Anniversary of Widden Stud in the Hunter Valley so impressive. Since 1867 the Thompson legacy has survived making it the world’s longest standing continuously family owned commercial Thoroughbred farm.
Eddie caught up with Antony Thompson, the 7th generation owner of Widden Stud, to understand how the history lives on today.
Antony, it’s exciting for you to be celebrating the 150 Year Anniversary, that’s a really big deal.
It’s a pretty unique achievement. You know, when you go to farms in England and other places through out Europe the main stables are 800 years old or in France there’s a chateau that was built around 1000 years ago. So while there have been many old horse farms there’s not been one farm that’s made it in the commercial world as a horse stud owned by the one family for as long as we have.
You’re the seventh generation so did you have a father son combination in every generation?
Pretty much. My father died when I was young but somehow through death and divorce, fire, famine, flood and all those things we survived. It’s a real testament to the forebears because it’s a very tough industry. It just takes one bad year or one bad situation but we’ve been able to breed enough good horses and we managed to navigate our way through it over the years.
As a child growing up at Widden, did you fully understand the significance of the history?
I really did, I always kind of got that. When my father died although I didn’t have any pressure put on me, I did feel pressure. You know- you’re the only son and you have this big family history- I guess I put the pressure on myself. The uniqueness of this valley, it really is the most beautiful place, I just knew that it was home for me and there was something about the valley that I wanted to be involved with. It has that spiritual connection that you have when you grow up here. We see people return to the valley, people who have lived here, their children or grandchildren will take them out of the nursing home so they can bring them to Widden one more time because they worked here. We get a lot of that because it really is a special place. That’s why I think it’s continued in the one family, we really have been able to maintain the business because people have wanted to live and work here and have their kids grow up here. So I guess that really is the real reason it’s survived, because it does have that special home environment- it’s a special place that people come back to.
What made your family unique in managing effective succession planning for so many years?
I guess the succession planning was something they thought about a bit with the father to son partnerships and the history. It was probably something they turned their minds to more than other people. They’ve been fortunate too in that they were able to provide for other members of the family as well. In my situation it was fortuitous there was a good Trust set up and that Trust was evoked and then my father died. It was good planning in the sixties to avoid death duties in NSW by setting up a Trust in the Northern Territory, if they hadn’t done that Widden probably wouldn’t be going today. It was good succession planning and it was a tragic set of circumstances that evoked the Trust. I was lucky enough that the Trust was in place and the role of the Trustees was to maintain Widden until I was old enough or interested enough to get involved.
I went home at the age of 21 after working at other farms and working for horse trainers and other breeders in New Zealand, America and Europe. It was quite a young age to be taking it all on and I don’t know if I was fully prepared it was something I thought I should do and have a crack at. Then I just had to work it out from there.
You spent some time as a Jackaroo too, what was that like?
That was interesting, it was fun. I was at Barrington Tops at Glenrock Station and that was more just life experience really to get out of Boarding School and back into the bush. We were riding ten hours a day, and we were learning about stock and people and horses- it was a great experience.
How are you different in the way you run your farm comparative to other horse farms?
I’ve always embraced the size and scope of what we have- we have 8000 acres and an incredible environment. Widden has always traditionally had large paddocks and it’s all really natural. I’ve seen the success of the horses that come off the farm and how they thrive in our environment. We’ve got plenty of land and we like the horses to really enjoy the space so I would never go away from what has always worked for us.
Photo: Sebring galloping
Do you have a favourite horse and a favourite moment?
Zoustar winning the Coolmore Stud Stakes was really significant for us because his sire Northern Meteor had died the year before which was terribly hard to take. To go and buy his son the week leading in to the race and watch him win the biggest group one at Flemington on Derby Day was very significant. Obviously Sebring, the Slipper winner, and everything he’s doing has been a wonderful thing. It’s one of those games where there are a lot of highs and a lot of lows and every horse is important to you in different ways.
Your children love horse riding and horses, do you think they will carry on the family tradition into the future?
I don’t know. They do love horse riding, they both love their horses and love competing. That seems to make them really happy and if it’s something they want to go on and do then hopefully one day their love of horses might bring them into it. I couldn’t think of anything better than to work with your children in your family business but ultimately there’s a lot of choices out there so it’s up to them. If we have an exciting, vibrant, successful business it might draw them in but if it’s really struggling and under pressure they mightn’t be inclined to take it on, so that’s my challenge.
Photo: Antony Thompson with his children Amy and Sam
You would have met some real characters over the years, are there any that have left a real impression on you?
Yes, there have been some fabulous characters who are larger than life. I was quite fortunate to spend a bit of time with Alec Head who is a magnificent elderly French gentleman with a great sense of humour and great knowledge. He started off as a jockey and has been a champion trainer and a champion breeder. He’s one of those guys whose friends with the Queen in one circle and then friends with all the stable guys in the next. He’s sonrode 100 Group One winners and his daughter was a champion trainer so as an all round horseman he is a great mentor and lovely friend. It’s one of those games where you can ring Gerry Harvey or captains of industry one minute and you’ll be picking up muck in the stables the next minute.
A lot of pedigree research goes into breeding and you have to be really switched on. Do you stay across the progress of upcoming horses around the world and keep an eye on bloodlines?
Yeah, it is a game where a lot happens around the world and you need to keep across that, but at the end of the day, you have to focus on what you’re doing. What happens on the track might affect you but you have to make sure that your farm and your horses are your first priority.
Describe a typical day from start to end.
Mostly I start on the farm around 6am in the morning. Depending on the time of the year you’ll be in the yearling barn or the foaling area or the stallion area. It’s early starts and long days out on the farm but besides that we are running a business and so there’s plenty of days you have to get into the office to deal with the business. Its one of those industries where no two days are the same, always plenty going on and it’s always different.
Do you ever get a moment to appreciate the landscape?
Absolutely, there are beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the valley. We do get lots of clients visiting the farm so taking them to the top of a hill for a cold beer to watch the sunset is always special. Otherwise you might be at work of a morning and you’ll look around and think- this is pretty special. You do occasionally get time out to pause and reflect.
What do you really love about the horse?
Every horse is different so you’re always learning, there’s just so much to learn with a horse. Every horse has a different personality and a different nature, so while you might be surrounded by plenty of horses- they’re all unique.
Author: Eddie Tahnell
Photos: Property of Widden Stud