John Robb, the racehorse-owning head of the new nuclear utility, is his own man when it comes to placing bets. Racing correspondent Julian Muscat joins him at Newbury.
The day starts early on the Lambourn gallops where John Hills, the racehorse trainer, is gathered with a cluster of patrons. Among them is John Robb, whose eyes focus expectantly on a posse of young racehorses working in pairs. As they breast the rise Hills identifies each horse, but Robb has long since recognised his own. There is something about the colt that he greatly admires.
Perhaps it is because Classic Defence was the less expensive of two horses of which Robb is a part-owner. The other, Bright Eclipse, is more distinguished and has already attracted the experts. Both have yet to debut; the racecourse will determine which is the better. But Robb, formerly chairman and chief executive of Wellcome, is happy to buck the trend.
Clearly he derives great pleasure from the stable visit, the large cooked breakfast and general gossip surrounding runners at Newbury later in the day. 'There's a great camaraderie among racing people. It's always very enjoyable to spend a day at the races and the thrill of having a runner is hard to match.' It's expensive, too, and in this respect Robb has much to learn. A silver-tongued horse dealer cajoled him into taking a greater share of the two racehorses than he budgeted for. 'I was quite happy to pay for 40% of the cost of the horses,' he chuckled,'but I now realise I'm paying 40% of the weekly bills as well.' Somewhere deep in his memory rests the experience of his first racehorse, Classic Ruler, another partnership horse which cost £20,000, won £50,000 in prize money and was sold within 12 months for £185,000. 'I was thoroughly spoiled from that moment,' he reflects, 'and I will be very lucky to have another horse like him.' That Robb, 59, has set up camp with Hills, 34, is indicative of his professional life. He could readily have afforded the premium demanded by Britain's proven trainers. Instead he relies on a promising talent whose career lies ahead of him. Robb is keen to give youth its head: there is more excitement in discovery than in the tried and trusted.
We press on to Newbury races, where Robb pores over the form guide as befits one whose interest was fostered through regular visits to Edinburgh racecourse. 'My father's philosophy was to teach me the folly of gambling. He never owned a car; never earned more than £20 a week.' And would he have approved of Robb's venture into ownership? 'Yes. He would have seen it as a sign of career success.' He is intrigued to hear the advice of my colleagues: the so-called experts at selecting winners. We are given the names of two horses. We ignore them both; they both oblige. We are halfway through the afternoon and Robb is impressed, particularly with a colourful Italian bloodstock agent who insists we back an unraced horse from an unfashionable stable in the third race. We ignore him too - with the inevitable consequences.
Despite this welter of inside information Robb stays loyal to his original selections, reached through a combination of their ability and his familiarity with their owners. He encounters Nicholas Jones, chief executive of Lazard's. Jones's horse, Star Tulip, runs in the fourth race and Robb resolves to back it. At the time Lazard's was one of two institutions short-listed to advise on the nuclear privatisation programme, to which Robb was appointed chairman in May. 'Lazard's acted for Glaxo in its takeover of Wellcome,' Robb announces, matter-of-factly. I fear for Lazard's aspirations as Star Tulip trails in last.
The link between boardroom ethics and those of the racecourse is surely tenuous. 'It is not as far removed as you might think,' Robb ventures. 'About 20 years ago I was approached to become a Lloyd's name. When I asked about the down side it sounded abhorrent. The whole of life is a gamble; you should never play for stakes you can't afford to lose.' Robb's attachment to racing is borne of a mind easily triggered by novelty. Racing is a folly, yet its allure is powerful and elusive. That he can socialise with others of his professional standing is helpful, but his real interest goes to the heart of the sport. Doubtless, when he retires he will spend much of his time trying unsuccessfully to explain it to others.