Barney Curley: A wannabe pop impresario who hit gold at the racetrack
STANDING in the great hallway of Middleton Park, the stately home near Mullingar, Co Westmeath, which he decided to raffle in 1986, Barney Curley wore a distinctive wide-brimmed hat and what has often been described as "a cold arrogant stare".
It was an unusual home for the former Jesuit seminarian from Irvinstown, Co Tyrone, who left the order after falling sick with TB while seven years into his study for the priesthood.
After owning a pub, in which he lost a fortune, he went into the entertainment business managing Frankie McBride and the Polka Dots, who got to the top of the British charts with a maudlin song called 'Five Little Fingers'.
In the early 1970s Curley, who was this week credited with pulling off a tremendous betting coup, turned his analytical mind to the world of gambling, and horse racing in particular.
His first great coup was on a horse called Yellow Sam at Bellewstown Racecourse in Co Louth on June 26, 1975. Curley had surveyed the course carefully and discovered one notable feature – there was only one telephone, a public coin box.
The lightly raced Yellow Sam, owned by Curley and trained by Liam Brennan, was a 20-1 shot. As Curley piled on the money at the course, his friend Benny wedged himself into the coin box and carried out a non-existent conversation about a dying aunt. He emerged 25 minutes later by which time the race was over and a massive gamble landed.
Frantic on-course bookies were unable to warn their offices to cut the price on Yellow Sam as Curley's trusted lieutenants swarmed into betting shops around Ireland piling on the cash. Yellow Sam was an easy winner, netting about £300,000 – a fortune at the time. Middleton Park, the home of Cecil Boy-Rochford – trainer to the Royal family and overlooking picturesque Lough Ennell – was bought with the proceeds.
But it was far from the racecourses of Britain where he now wanted to ply his trade. The property market was on the floor so he organised an international raffle backed by an ingenious marketing campaign.
Tickets were £100, the house was first prize.
However the authorities said that it was a lottery and illegal, as such.
The highly-secret draw was held in the house just as the gardai arrived to confiscate the proceeds.
Curley was later prosecuted and sentenced to a jail term at Mullingar District Court but the sentence was overturned on appeal. Curley made an unsolicited €50,000 donation to local charities and set off for England.
Before last Wednesday his most recent coup was in May 2010 when he had a similar gamble on four horses, racing at various venues in England. Three of them, Agapanthus, Savanarola and Sommersturn were trained by Curley, while the fourth had once been in his yard.
Three won and Curley and his associates are believed to have collected £4m in winnings.
Despite a ruling by the British Horseracing Authority that no rules of racing were broken, on-line firm Betfred, based in Gibraltar, refused to pay £823,000 in winnings, pending an investigation by the local gambling commissioner. After a 21-month wrangle the dispute and the bet were finally settled.
Curley, an archetypical anti-hero, rarely speaks publicly, remains a devout Catholic and when not planning gambling coup's devotes himself personally to a charity he established to help impoverished children in Zambia.