Arrowfield’s tribute to Nick Columb

Nick Columb & John Messara celebrate after Miss Finland's 2006 Golden Slipper victory at Rosehill. (PHOTO: Martin King, Sportpix)

John & Kris Messara, Paul & Alice Messara and the entire Arrowfield team join many thoroughbred industry people around the world to mourn the death of our great friend Nick Columb, in Girona, Spain on 10 August after suffering a stroke ten days earlier.

Of course, this would be much more entertaining and scandalous if Nick was still here telling us about his own drama-filled life, as he so often did in hilarious, sharply observed episodes. It’s some consolation for us that Paul Messara and Martin Story spent a few days in Japan last month with Nick at his entertaining best, holding court and telling outrageous stories in his inimitable style. 

Nick’s ability to rise again from failure, change tack and adapt to different times and opportunities meant that people met and knew him in several thoroughbred industry roles: as the stunningly successful high-rolling owner and buyer of the 1980s, the energetic owners’ advocate of the 1980s and 1990s, and the globe-trotting bloodstock consultant of recent years. Yet they only hint at the significant impact he had on the Australian and international racing community and on the many people who have paid tribute to him.

John Messara says, “Nick Columb was the staunchest friend, always fearless, constantly innovative and deeply passionate about horse racing and so much else. He leaves an unfillable gap in Arrowfield’s world, and so many good memories and reasons to be grateful for his incomparable life.”

The high drama of Nick’s life began just after World War II in Bucharest when his parents and the infant Nick fled from the Soviet occupation of Romania, eventually emigrating to Australia in the early 1950s. 

Educated at Brighton Grammar School, Nick attended the Law Faculty at Monash University for two years until, as he explained, he “started falling asleep in lectures.” A cadetship at the Melbourne Herald (now the Herald-Sun) followed and he worked as a journalist there for almost ten years, covering crime, the Courts and all sports, including racing.

After a period as the National Marketing Director for the George Patterson Advertising Agency, Nick launched his own successful business, eventually investing in a pub, private hospitals and the Morning Star Estate at Mount Eliza.

His passion for the turf was sparked, as it was for so many in that generation, by Saturdays spent with his punting father at the races and at 18 Nick leased his first “hopelessly slow” horse with a couple of mates. Some years later he bought a filly named Teversham who did a little better, being denied victory at the Avoca Picnic Races only by a judge who awarded the race to his cousin’s horse. At least, that’s how Nick told it!

Undaunted, he persisted in racehorse ownership, through an expensive and very fast Vain colt who suffered knee chips, a share in Full On Aces and success in the 1981 Golden Slipper and AJC Sires’ Produce and the purchase of a horse from a drunken Kiwi one night in a Melbourne bar. Syndicated with the help of Tommy Smith, that horse was Little Brown Jug (he raced as My Brown Jug in Australia) who won the St George and the Alister Clark and famously savaged Manikato in the C.F. Orr.

Then along came the first of the horses that elevated Nick’s profile an owner and cemented his long friendship with trainer Ross McDonald. That horse was Magari, who swept through the 1982 Melbourne Spring Carnival winning what are now the Sir Rupert Clarke, the Toorak and the Cantala Stakes.

Nick bought Magari’s dam Aurea in foal to Century and with a Century filly at foot that raced as Centaurea and gave Nick one of his biggest thrills when she won the 1985 Australasian Oaks, ridden by Lester Piggott.

This was a golden era for Nick as an owner and he visited the Group 1 winner’s circle regularly over the next few years, thanks to three spectacular fillies, all bought at the New Zealand yearling sales.

Courtza carried Nick Columb’s famous colours to victory in the 1989 Golden Slipper G1. (PHOTO: Martin King, Sportpix)

Tristarc (Sir Tristram-Renarc) took 14 races to break her maiden, but eventually won five Group 1 events including the 1985 Australian Derby and Caulfield Cup. Million-dollar earner Imposera (Imposing-Calera) won the 1988 Australasian Oaks and Caulfield Cup and a year later Courtza (Pompeii Court-Hunza) earned 2YO Championship honours after completing the Blue Diamond-Golden Slipper double. 

The crash of the early 1990s slowed Nick’s activity as an owner, but not his advocacy on behalf of Victorian and Australian owners, a task he pursued with typical vigour. His philosophy was simple: “Without owners there is no racing. We ‘feed’ everyone – trainers, jockeys, strappers, vets, float drivers, grain merchants and race club committees. Without horses out on the tracks there’d be nothing to bet on. Indeed, all we’d see is grass growing!”

Although he later said it was “mostly banging my head up against closed officialdom’s doors”, Nick’s 15 years as Chairman of The Racehorse Owners’ Association (TROA) were far from fruitless. The SuperVOBIS Scheme, current owners’ privileges and facilities and wider distribution of prizemoney are all achievements to which Nick, among others, contributed.

Nick’s experience as a buyer of bloodstock, his vast network of industry contacts and deep understanding of the thoroughbred business led him to his last professional role as the head of Hong Jockey Club’s purchasing team for the Hong Kong International Sale.  The strong growth of that Sale and graduates including Champion Stayer & dual Group 1 winner Pakistan Star are results that Nick and his colleagues rightly celebrated.

Nick had many passions outside racing, notably the Western Bulldogs (formerly Footscray) AFL Club. He spent almost a decade on the Club’s board and, despite a turbulent year as President in 1989, he remained a loyal Bulldogs fan. (They defeated North Melbourne 92-85 on Sunday which would have pleased him!)  

A flirtation with city politics gave Melbourne the opportunity to elect a really interesting Lord Mayor in 2008, but as he always did, Nick rose above the failure of that campaign and continued to enjoy life, racing, football, friends, family and the other things he loved: “travel; good music; fine food and great red wine; and above-average sheilas.”

Nick is survived by his children Adrian, Georgia & Nick with his first wife Bev, Raphaela & Romany with his second wife Rosanne, and grandson Charlie.

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