Obituary: David Whitaker, Chartered accountant

Chairman and champion of Perth Racecourse, owner of Grand National winner Lucius. Picture: Contributed
Chairman and champion of Perth Racecourse, owner of Grand National winner Lucius. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 8 September, 1937 in Edinburgh. Died: 7 March, 2016, in Perth, aged 78.

As the grandson of a trainer and Grand National jockey, horseracing must have been in his DNA, but David Whitaker was an accountant long before he became the influential chairman of the country’s most popular racecourse.

However, it was that business acumen that helped him steer Perth Racecourse to the huge commercial success it enjoys today, as an award-winning venue and one of the UK’s favourite tracks with owners, jockeys and racegoers.

Along with general manager Sam Morshead they made a formidable team and transformed the racecourse, forging an enviable reputation and bringing world-class racing to the track which, under Whitaker’s leadership of more than 20 years, has seen major developments including the Nelson Stand and a new £1.8 million hotel complex scheduled to open later this year. The past 12 months alone have accounted for three prestigious awards, including an endorsement as the Racegoers Club Best Overall Racecourse for Scotland and the North East.

“David was a popular figure here… and indeed throughout the horseracing industry where he was held in the highest regard,” said Perth Racecourse chief executive Hazel Peplinski. “He made a major contribution not just to this racecourse but to the sport and indeed the wider community of Perth.”

Born in Edinburgh, the son of London stockbroker Thomas Whitaker, he was educated at Eton College and Oxford University after which he spent a year at a university in France. Returning to the UK, with no idea what to do with his life, it was suggested that he might go into accounting. His father knew a partner in the Glasgow firm of McClelland Moores and Co (MM&Co), which also had a London office, and it was arranged that he should be sent to company to see if they could “make an accountant out of him”.

He claimed he had no idea what accountants did but off he went to the City in search of the office which was in a building shared by another firm of accountants, Broads Patterson. He apparently didn’t really know which firm he was meant to join but he ended up in MM&Co where he was streamed with the more able apprentices who took the Scottish Chartered Accountancy exams. He was made a partner in 1967 and by the time Broads Patterson merged with MM&Co to form Arthur Young McClelland Moores & Co a few years later, Whitaker had moved to Edinburgh where he became a senior partner in Ernst & Young.

The racing heritage stemmed from his grandfather, Captain Percy Whitaker, who had won the National Hunt Chase in 1908 and ridden in the Grand National as an amateur jockey before becoming a renowned trainer in Royston, Hertfordshire. And, although Whitaker did not declare any great interest in horseracing or horses, by the 1970s his wife Fiona had got him hooked on racing, both as owners and breeders and through involvement with Perth Racecourse.

They owned the Grand National winner Lucius who took first place in a close finish between the leading five horses in 1978. That year the field did not include the celebrated triple Grand National winner Red Rum, which had been entered but was declared a non-runner the night before. It was later discovered he had a hairline fracture and he was retired, never to race again

Whitaker, whose daughter Lucy also trains horses, became Perth Racecourse chairman more than 20 years ago and the enterprise is now almost unrecognisable from the venture of which he took the helm.

Sam Morshead, who retired as general manager last year, said: “Without shadow of a doubt Perth Racecourse would not be where it is today without David’s strong and wise leadership. Scottish racing owes David a huge debt of gratitude. His legacy is apparent when you look around Perth Racecourse as it is today. Without his prompting, support and encouragement it probably wouldn’t be here.”

In addition to his contribution to the racecourse, Whitaker served as chairman of both the Wemyss Development Company and Securities Trust for Scotland plc and for many years was a director of the Ivory and Sime Isis Trust.

In his leisure time he was a very keen golfer, an excellent shot and an enthusiastic traveller. Described as an amazing dad, with an outrageous sense of humour, he was affectionately known as Gubbins – courtesy of his eldest grandson’s inability to master the word grandpa – a nickname which has since been fondly adopted by those beyond his immediate family.

He is survived by his wife Fiona, daughters Jo and Lucy, son Tim and ten grandchildren.