Two 20-1 local winners in the past week – Mucho Dinero at Durbanville and Alittlebitnaughty at Greyville – brought to mind legendary rascal of racing Barney Curley. The long odds and the names triggered the memory, for the Irishman made mucho money by being a bit naughty.
If Queen Elizabeth was at one end of the Brit racing see-saw, Curley was at the other. It’s not that he was crooked, just a tad nimble.
Curley came to notoriety in 1975 with the “Yellow Sam coup”, a betting swoop that netted him about £1.7-million – a massive sum in those days.
He owned Yellow Sam – named after his father, a man devoted to greyhounds and alcohol. It was a moderate racehorse who had evaded the handicappers’ notice. Trainer Liam Brennan was instructed to secretly get Yellow Sam into tip-top shape for a jumps race at Ireland’s rural Bellewstown racecourse.
The venue was chosen specifically because it had only one public phone box! The coup depended on Yellow Sam starting the race at 20-1. Curley and friends assembled an army of “runners” around the UK and Ireland, to enter betting shops five minutes before the off and place scores of £5-£100 bets on the “no-hoper”. The key was to prevent the word spreading.
On course, he had a man in the sole phone box, feigning grief over news of a lost relative and, crucially, occupying the line so that outsiders could not get through to alert on-course bookies that something was up. That would have slashed the starting price and slashed Barney’s winnings from the big bookmaking firms, who then operated like a tote with the on-course starting price governing payouts.
Yellow Sam won easily and made major headlines. Everyone loves it when bookies take a beating!
Priest and music promoter
Born in 1939 in Northern Ireland, Curley grew up in a staunch Catholic and staunch punting family, taking illegal bets for his granny at the age of eight and observing his father’s many gambling failures. So great were Sam’s debts that he and 15-year-old Barney had to locate to Manchester for a year to work double factory shifts to pay off the creditors.
Amazingly, Barney then decided to become a Jesuit priest.
But tuberculosis gave him a brush with death and he later said experience of the seminary and the sanitorium taught him never to worry about anything ever again – which showed in his nerveless wagering with fortunes.
He became a music promoter for a while, most notably managing Frankie McBride and the Polka Dots, who had a top 20 hit with Five Little Fingers. Other bands were The Buckaroos and The Tall Men.
Then he met his wife, also a Curley, which he said was a 50 million-1 shot as there were few of them about – and decided to become a professional gambler. He went to the 1971 Cheltenham Festival with his family’s £700 savings and returned a week later with £50,000.
“I was so red-hot I was in danger of spontaneous combustion,” he later recalled.
After the Yellow Same coup, he bought a mansion, which he raffled off for a profit of £1-million. This got him jailed for three months for breaking Irish lottery laws, but he was freed and had the criminal record expunged when he donated £10,000 to charity.
After much drama, Curley got a trainer’s licence and had stables at Newmarket in England. He took a young jockey under his wing and did much to launch his career – one Frankie Dettori, who was devoted to his benefactor and auctioned off his famous fedora for charity at Bellewstown after the old man’s death.
When Curley’s 18-year-old son was killed in a car crash, the distraught father took a holiday in Zambia and Zimbabwe, where he was much affected by the poverty he witnessed and set up a highly successful children’s charity (Direct Aid to Africa) – his proudest achievement.
There were other betting coups along the way, of course. Like in 2014, when he identified four horses and masterminded a sensational whammy.
The four runners had all been off the course for some time – for periods of between 225 and 700 days – and had crummy form when they were last competing. They were brought to peak fitness in secret and unleashed on four different racecourses on the same day at long odds.
The trick this time was a matrix of accumulators, triples, doubles and individual win bets. At the morning odds, when a couple of the horses were quoted at 33-1, an accumulator was paying more than 9,000/1. Again, there was an element of coordination and surprise in the laying of bets.
Bookies said they lost £2-million between them, but some pundits reckon it was twice that.
Curley lived up to the legend, usually looking like a character from a Damon Runyan or Dick Francis novel. A pic of him in The Guardian after the 2014 coup – in hacking jacket and battered fedora hat, clutching a copy of Racing Post and puffing on a cigar – was classic.
Barney Curley died in 2021 at the age of 81.