Over the past while, we have brought you some of the most colourful and controversial stories of great Irish racing betting coups of the past (both in Ireland and the UK). From legendary tales such as Barney Curley and the Yellow Sam coup, and the infamous Gaye Future affair, through to the modern plots with D Four Dave and Bocaccio, amongst others – fantastically successful and entertaining stories of skulduggery and clinical execution. Who’d be a bookie?!
To conclude this series, we might as well end at the start, so to speak. Barney Curley masterminded the Yellow Sam coup back in 1975, and even 40 years on it was recently celebrated with Bellewstown racecourse (the scene of the coup) re-enacting the tale with a play during their 2-day meeting in August.
Bernard Joseph Curley was born in County Fermanagh in 1939. His father Charlie made a fortune smuggling black-market goods from the Irish Republic which he then lost on dog-racing. After a smart boarding school education Barney went to work in an English factory to help pay the family debts and then trained as a Jesuit priest. He gave up after four years – although he remains devout and attends Mass daily – and briefly became a bookmaker. He was terrible at it and a fellow bookie told him: “You are not a bookmaker. All you want to do is gamble.”
After managing a band, running a pub and smuggling razor blades and tyres into the Irish Republic he moved into professional gambling in his late 30s. His first big success was with a horse called Little Tim in which he had a share. Knowing it was in perfect condition for a race at a country track near Cork, he employed around 40 “putters-on” to bet on it. With an outlay of £4,000 its comfortable win earned him at least £40,000. That was a trial run for his first great coup in 1975 with Yellow Sam
You might think that Barney’s bookie-bashing tales are from a bygone era, never to be repeated in these modern times of mass bookie surveillance and intelligence – but you’d be wrong! Despite Mr. Curley devoting much of his recent years to his great charitable work, he still has the eye and expertise to land a blow on the bookies. In recent years he has simply adapted his approach to the modern betting market, with some high profile coups landed. Here are a couple (that we know about).
“THE BIGGEST HORSE RACING BETTING COUP IN HISTORY”
In 2010, Curley decided to try and emulate his feats of 1975. With the far more sophisticated world of modern bookmakers, it seemed a much greater challenge, yet he succeeded once again. Modern technology means there’s no way you could pull off a “Yellow Sam” kind of coup nowadays. So, 35 years on, Barney began to look for ways of outwitting the bookies once more. He is a technophobe but he recruited a young whizz kid who found the loophole they needed.
He worked out that while betting shops are vigilant for small single bets being placed on one horse they don’t look out for multiple bets where the punter bets on winners of more than one race.
It goes against all bookmaker trading experience for a strongly fancied horse not to be backed as a single. Why would anyone jeopardise a payout by including it in a double or a treble with other horses? It just doesn’t happen.
Now based in Newmarket in the UK, where at one stage he had 50 horses in training, Curley set himself the task of matching four runners to four races on the same day which stood a decent chance of winning at good odds. It was a massive undertaking, as it is hard enough to send out one winner with a degree of certainty.
He also had to do it behind a veil of complete secrecy, given that the bookies were particularly vigilant for anything involving horses from Curley’s stable.
Via another accomplice, former City trader Jack Lynch, he hired a gang of 30 “putters-on”. Armed with fold-up bikes and untraceable mobile phones, they were given carefully planned routes to cover as many betting shops as possible in a day. It was also crucial that while they moved between them as fast as possible, they dawdled once there. They had to look natural so as not to attract attention.
The plans changed many times before Curley fixed on four horses and races on May 10th 2010. The horses were Agapanthus in the 4.10pm at Brighton, Savaronola in the 5pm at Wolverhampton, Sommersturm in the 5.30pm at Wolverhampton and Jeu De Roseau in the 7.30pm at Towcester. Only Agapanthus had won a race of any kind in Britain and the extent of the gamble was made clear when Savaronola went lame two days before. But Curley decided to go ahead anyway. By late morning on the day they were respectively priced at 11/2, 4/1, 9/4 and 25/1. These odds were sure to dive. But by then, the bets would be safely on.
Around £100,000 worth of bets were laid in various multiples, keeping the stakes as low as possible in order to stay under the radar. The bets were trebles on three of the four horses, in different permutations, and Yankees, a multiple bet on four horses in which at least two horses had to win for any payout at all. It seemed like madness but that was part of the point: to make sure the bookies’ early-warning systems weren’t triggered.
The team returned to base to watch the races on TV. Their first horse Agapanthus was by now hot favourite, but it had the gang worried by starting slowly before coming through to win by two lengths. In the next race, Savaronola was up against Alex Ferguson’s If I Had Him and was 11/10 favourite – it notched up its first ever win, finishing six lengths clear. Apparently, Ferguson was fuming, later telling Curley: “I backed that bloody horse that day!”
But disaster struck in the third leg of the bet. Sommersturm had been seen as the certainty of the foursome, but trailed in fifth. This was not in the script.
All hopes were now pinned on Jeu De Roseau. Rival Jockey Tony McCoy set a hot early pace on his mount Manjam, but Jeu De Roseau’s rider Denis O’Regan bided his time and pushed the exhausted horse into a winning lead in the final furlong. The banker had failed to deliver but the outsider came to the rescue!
If Sommersturm had come first, the payout would have been more than £15million. However, three out of four meant they had netted £3.9million, reportedly the biggest win in history.
CURLEY STRIKES YET AGAIN?
In the aftermath of his huge win in 2010, Curley is believed to have said that no organised gambling coup of this kind could happen for the rest of this century. Famous last words!
On January 22 2014 Curley reportedly became the scourge of the bookies yet again, when he forced them to pay out £2million in yet another orchestrated 4 horse coup.
As before, the coup in question involved four horses that were well backed in doubles, trebles and accumulators on 22 January, although none of them had won since 2010 and two had not raced for more than a year. This time, they all won!
Eye Of The Tiger at Lingfield, Seven Summits at Catterick and Indus Valley and Low Key at Kempton. All had been much bigger price on the morning of the races, at approximately 10/1, 7/1, 20/1 an 7/1 respectively, and all finished up with much shorter winning SPs of Evens, 9/4, 4/6 and 4/7. Three of the winners, Eye of the Tiger, Low Key and Seven Summits, were once trained by Curley.On the day of the coup, three of the four horses were trained by either Des Donovan or John Butler, former employees of Curley. Donovan said at the time: “Put it like this, I didn’t get any money out of it. I don’t bet – I just like to get the best out of horses and win races with them.” Butler said that people were jumping to conclusions and he suggested that it was a “coincidence”. The fourth, Seven Summits, is trained by Sophie Leech, who has denied any connection with the coup.
Curley stayed silent on his involvement in the coup, initially at least. Speaking at a Cheltenham Festival preview evening at the Salthill Hotel in March 2014, he offered only a few words on the subject but described the experience as “satisfying”.
He did go on to say that he had kept two letters of congratulations sent to him in the days after the coup. “One was from Ian Balding [trainer of Mill Reef], one of the greatest sportsmen in England this last 30 or 40 years, Clare Balding’s father. It was a great privilege to get a letter from him because he knows all about the horses.”
The second letter, he said, had a picture of Curley, clipped from the Racing Post, stuck to the envelope, with the words “Barney Curley, genius” written on it. Curley said he had almost thrown it away but, on opening it, found a postcard apparently signed by Martin and David Pipe, the enormously successful father-and-son training team based in Devon.