THE GAMBLING MAN
Professional gambler Barney Curley, for years the scourge of the British and Irish racing establishments, has written his autobiography. Typical of the man, it gives a no-holds-barred account of his big `punts', including the Yellow Sam sting in 1975, and his imprisonment for running a lottery to get rid of his lavish home, Middleton House. Most of all, it is a scathing attack on the big three bookies.
For more than 40 years Barney Curley, the legendary and controversial Northern Ireland-born gambler and racehorse trainer, has lived on his wits winning and losing sums of money unimaginable to most of us with an equanimity he attributes to the years he spent as a Jesuit seminarian and a close brush with death from tuberculosis in his early twenties.
The seminary and the sanitorium, he claims, taught him never to worry about anything again. He mightn't worry, but his outrageous gambling coups and his searing contempt for the British racing establishment have caused several generations of bookies and racing's administrators many sleepless nights.
His appearance at a racecourse, from exclusive Goodwood to lowly Mussleburgh, in his trademark swinging loden coat and felt fedora covering his completely bald pate, has always caused a frisson of excitement amongst the ordinary punters, and a sharp intake of breath from the ring bookies.
Bernard Joseph Curley was born in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh, in 1939 into a staunchly Catholic family. His father, Charlie, was a tough, stern man with a profound affection for alcohol and greyhounds, which left the family in dire straits most of the time. So great became his father's debts that, when Barney was 15, he agreed to accompany his father to Manchester for a year to work double shifts in a factory to pay off the family's creditors.
Barney placed his first bet at the age of eight, when he was dispatched to the local (illegal) betting shop to place his grandmother's daily sixpenny cross-doubles and trebles. Two years later, he took the plunge own his own accord and won £4 a huge sum in the late forties. The die was cast, though years of boarding school and seminaries curtailed his impulses until his early twenties.
Curley admits freely he has never held a conventional job in his life. He went bust as a bookie in Belfast and was on his uppers when he was offered the opportunity to manage a small-time local showband called The Claxtons. With the entrepreneurial flair and ruthlessness he would later bring to his equine activities, Curley culled the weaker members of the band and created the Polka Dots, who were a big hit in Ireland and made it to the British charts when Frankie McBride and the band got into the Top 20 with `Five Little Fingers'.
By the time he quit showbiz, Barney had a stable of bands which included Brian Coll and the Buckaroos and Hugo Duncan and the Tall Men.
His showband forays south of the Border provided a handy second income through smuggling everything from razor blades to Michelin tyres. The bands also gave him his introduction to his wife Maureen, from St Helen's in Lancashire. She was, amazingly, also a Curley a 50 million-1 shot, he says, given there are so few Curleys about.
He was 28, married, a home-owner and an expectant father when he decided to become a full-time gambler. He set off for the 1971 Cheltenham Festival meeting with £700 and returned three days later with his pockets bulging with more than £50,000.
``I was so red hot I was in danger of spontaneous combustion,'' he recalls. But the money didn't last long. Curley candidly admits he has no aptitude whatsoever for business, and an ill-advised investment in a local pub, which he renamed The Cheltenham Arms, and a small chain of bookies shops soaked up the winnings very swiftly. It was, he says, sheer madness.
So, too, was Derby Day, 1982. Vincent O'Brien's Golden Fleece was the hot favourite for the race, but Barney didn't think he was a good horse. He laid the horse to lose and ended up with liabilities of £150,000 on Golden Fleece and exacerbated his plight by losing another £100,000 on other bets.
``There were no excuses. My judgement just misfired completely,'' he says. ``A lesser man might have been persuaded to pack it in immediately ... but I never panicked and I didn't allow it to get to me. I've always taken the view that if you're hot you should strike, but if you're cold you should back off and reassemble your forces. I took Maureen and the kids to California and effectively retired for three months.''
The betting coup that catapulted Barney Curley into the headlines and controversy occurred at the tiny, once-a-year Co Meath track at Bellewstown in June 1975. The financially beleaguered Curley desperately needed a ``touch''. He owned a slow, but steady, horse called Yellow Sam, which was well handicapped in a bad race at Bellewstown, and he planned his scam with the precision of a military operation ... or, to use a better analogy (Curley's own), a bank robbery.
He spent weeks plotting and planning, and by race day had an army of `layers' spread throughout the country, each poised to place a bet of anything between £50 and £300 in hundreds of off-course bookies shops 15 minutes before the 3pm start of the race. In all, he was going to bet in excess of £15,000, the last available cash he possessed.
The important factor in the gamble was to ensure that Yellow Sam started at 20/1 or better, and once the off-course bookies realised money was piling on Yellow Sam, they'd be on to the course bookies to lay off their liabilities, which would cause Yellow Sam's starting price to tumble.
But Bellewstown had been chosen for one crucial fact there was only one public telephone at the track and a close pal of Barney's, Benny O'Hanlon, was instructed, under pain of death, to get on that telephone at 2.30pm and keep it busy until just after the off.
Barney knew that if his very recognisable figure was seen at the course, the bookies would realise something was up and slash the price of his horse to 2/1 or worse. He crept into the centre of the course and watched the race concealed in a whin bush. And what a race!
Yellow Sam safely negotiated the 13 hurdles and won easily by two-and-a-half lengths. In all, Barney collected £300,000, which in today's terms is the equivalent of £1.4 million. Others believe that his take was considerably more than that. Barney insists there was nothing illegal or immoral about what he did he argues that he simply outwitted the system and took advantage of unique circumstances.
In fact, Yellow Sam, Barney's dad's nickname, was something of a cash cow for Curley. He reckons he made around £1 million in bets on the horse in that and subsequent well-chosen races.
The next big newspaper splash was in 1984, when he decided to sell his Co Westmeath mansion, Middleton House, by way of a raffle. The draw was limited to 9,000 tickets priced at £200 each, and a proportion of the sum raised was to go to the local GAA club. As far as Barney was concerned, the raffle complied with the law and all was above board.
But on the day of the draw, which RTE commentator Michael O'Hehir was to conduct, gardai surrounded the house. The winning ticket belonged to a Gloucestershire syndicate of six people, who sold the house on. After expenses, the Curleys netted a cool £1 million for the house. In July 1992, it netted only £300,000 at auction!
A few days after the raffle, Barney and Michael O'Hehir were arrested and charged. O'Hehir was cleared, but Curley was sentenced to three months in prison, the maximum term for promoting an illegal lottery. On appeal to the Circuit Court, Curley was given the benefit of the Probation Act, with no conviction recorded, provided he agreed to contribute £5,000 to a local charity. Curley happily doubled the sum.
After years of toing and froing with the racing authorities, Curley was issued with a trainer's licence in 1986. He kept a small stable of his own horses and trained them to win specific races, on which he would gamble mightily. He reckoned he needed to make £400,000 a year from these bets just to keep the operation afloat, and says that there has never been a single year in which he ended up in the red from his gambling.
This unorthodox approach to racing horrified the racing establishment and he was constantly being hauled up before the stewards and the Turf Club. His opinion of these worthies was never high, so in 1988 he attempted to set up a rival organisation to police racing, the Independent Racing Organisation, with its radical Punter's Charter. Unlike many of his big bets, it failed to attract any interest inside or outside the industry and sank without trace.
Barney Curley is a man of very definite opinions, and when it comes to bookmakers, they are trenchant to the point of libel. He says he now bets with the underground bookmakers, because they will take bets like £8,000 at 4-1.
``Walk into a bookies' shop and try to have a £500 bet on a 10-1 chance and a phone call to headquarters later you're out the door, still clasping your £500,'' he says. ``Three or four million people bet on the horses every day. Bookies love the fiver, the tenner and the twenty from the cannon fodder, but don't like anything else; like a boxer with a glass jaw, they'll not take a hit. All bookies want to do is recycle dole money and take their rake-off.''
These days, Barney Curley is not the magnetic presence he once was at racecourses. He lives in Newmarket, keeps a few horses in training to keep his hand in and devotes most of his time to a charity he set up with a friend from his time in the seminary, Fr James O'Kane, a missionary in Africa. He remains totally disenchanted with the state of racing in Britain saying: ``I just don't concern myself too much with the future.''
Giving a Little Back: An Autobiography, by Barney Curley, will be published by Harper Collins on September 7.