I heard of Nick Columb long before I actually met him. Friends in Australia knew him from back in the day. My longtime friend Brent Thomson had ridden winners for him when Nick was flying high. And Nick Columb flew higher than many in horse racing in Australia with interests in real estate, exhibitions, publishing, and of course being a hugely successful racehorse owner, breeder and bon vivant.
He flew high, he made a fortune, he lost fortunes, he grew wings again and flew high again until his wings were clipped and he ended up in Myanmar.
What always bothered The Babe were the years of taunting he had to take from Nick about having given one of his gallopers “a run”. The Babe is not someone to hold a grudge. Even if he did, he would drop it at slips. Still, after over twenty years of being accused of something he never did, it bothered him. For years. And it takes an awful lot to bother the legend that is Brent Thomson. But those old wounds healed recently.
When hearing that Nick Columb had been head hunted by the HKJC to be its Senior Racing Consultant and I would be meeting him, all I heard from the land down under, especially those in horse racing, was, “Good luck”. How two very different individuals- Nick and myself-and both outspoken and opinionated in our own ways would result in a clash of the Titans.
What no one in horse racing knew was that I had heard of Nick Columb when with EMI Music. He had discovered an unknown and down on his luck cobbler and opera singer in Melbourne named Peter Brocklehurst, below, and was determined to see him succeed. This was Nick, a lover of opera, entrepreneur, and wanting to have new talent heard.
The singer’s recordings reached these ears, and despite us being impressed with this artist for our Classical Division, for reasons unknown at the time, Peter Brocklehurst never happened. And so it went on- that he and I would never get along and how Nick Columb couldn’t get along with anyone.
Stories of him telling off certain senior executives with the HKJC added to the image of a very difficult person who didn’t suffer fools gladly. What’s wrong with that? Who has time to deal with fools?
It took a few years before I finally met Nick- a giant of a man. A larger than life character in more ways than one. This was at a dinner hosted by Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the HKJC, who, knowing both of us, and with his friendship with Nick going back decades, probably wanted to throw a grenade into the restaurant and see how two les enfants terribles would get along. He needn’t have worried. Nick and I got along fine.
Being a great raconteur, of course the dinner was dominated by Nick’s many stories. There was a very different insight, for example, into the Ponzi scheme that was The Edge and supposedly run by Bill Vlahos. Supposedly. Nick is said to have seen right through it three years before everything went KABOOM.
Unanswered questions about The Edge and Bill Vlahos suddenly disappeared into thin air. What followed were the reported stories where Nick placed the blame squarely on then-Racing Minister Dennis Napthine and the reappointment of Sal Perna as the Head of Integrity, who both didn’t listen to his warnings.
Sal Perna? What does he exactly do and what’s he done and what’s he supposed to be doing right now? He comes across as one of those very special species who gets paid handsomely for doing nothing. Where exactly does Sal Perna sit at the Integrity dinner table?
As for our first dinner, Nick Columb and I talked about his friendships with people like John Messara and Alan Jones, his travels, food, his appreciation of women, and being the man who made the decision to purchase Pakistan Star from Germany for the HKJC International Sales and the challenges that lay ahead in having the enigmatic galloper fulfil his potential.
It was a great dinner. I got to know Nick, he got to know me, and we both knew where we stood. There was mutual respect.
Every day after that would come an onslaught of jokes from Nick via WhatsApp. He was also the first person to inform me that our great longtime friend- barrister Kevin Egan- had passed away in his sleep. We laid Big Kev to rest a month ago.
For the past few days, there were no jokes from Nick. The last post was a photograph of himself with daughter Raphaela in Barcelona and the message that I had lost my chance to meet her when she holidayed in Hong Kong. I had. Raphaela is stunning.
I gave Nick a call to see how he was doing. He was traveling looking for new horses. He wasn’t happy about Pakistan Star not being named Horse Of The Year, had his usual rants about a few racing executives before reminding me that though Big Kev couldn’t join us as planned, he and I were going to my birthplace- Sri Lanka- for a holiday. It was one of the few places he had never visited.
Nick Columb had a stroke while in Spain and was in a coma for almost two weeks. His daughters were flown out to be with him. They were there when Nick decided it was time to leave.
At 73, he had led an incredible life. He was like that song by Blood, Sweat and Tears called “Spinning Wheel.” It was now time to leave. He will be very much missed. A true original. He had taken on all comers. He had been to the top of the mountain. He had seen it all. Except for us never making that trip to Sri Lanka. The next time around.
RIP, big guy.