Sport Horse Racing

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Curley's magic 'touch' will live long in memory

Legendary gambler used all his experience to outsmart bookies fair and square with astonishing betting coup

Low Key with trainer John Butler after winning at Kempton on Wednesday
Low Key with trainer John Butler after winning at Kempton on Wednesday

Rachel Wyse

How often have you heard it said about horse racing – there is no such thing as a certainty? There are simply too many variables in the sport to guarantee an outcome.

Luck is obviously a huge factor, but sometimes a combination of industry knowledge, shrewdness and the courage of your convictions can take you a hell of a long way.

Events of the past week have proved that emphatically.

On Monday last, with the prospect of another mundane week in the racing world on the horizon, the headlines promised to be all about Frankie Dettori's return to riding and the birth of Frankel's first offspring.

On Wednesday, everything changed. When Low Key won the 6.25 at Kempton Park, one of the greatest gambling masterstrokes of all time had been accomplished, netting an estimated £2.5m.

This was a 'touch' of epic proportions. From early morning the biggest high-street bookmakers saw considerable interest in four horses running at Lingfield, Catterick and Kempton. Bookmakers laid bets with the four horses in various combinations of doubles, trebles and accumulators.

Quickly it became apparent that this was more than just your everyday punter at work, and when the link was made between the four horses and the legendary gambler Barney Curley, I suspect the blood drained from more than one face in the headquarters of various bookmaking outlets.

As far as punting is concerned, Curley has never done anything by half-measure, a lesson many bookmakers have learned the expensive way in the past.


In 1972 at Cork racecourse, Curley landed his first gamble as a winning owner when his horse Little Tim was backed from 20s into eights under jockey Bobby Barry – 42 years later, events suggest Curley is still dishing out painful lessons to those in the bookmaking world.

His longevity in a treacherous game is testament to the man's knowledge, know-how, ability to identify an opportunity and his courage to take the type of risks most folk would rather avoid.

And the risks are massive. Nothing is guaranteed and for a successful gamble to be landed, the money must first be placed in a bookmaker's satchel. There is always the possibility it will remain there and such risks aren't for everybody.

Even Curley has had his fingers burned over the years. In May 2010 he plotted a similar coup to the one we witnessed this week when four horses were backed simultaneously in multiple combinations.

At the time Curley held a trainer's license and three of the chosen horses were in his care. Fortunately for the layers, the plot didn't fully materialise when Sommersturm was beaten at Wolverhampton.

Curley and his men still showed a handsome profit for their exploits, but had all four horses won the consequences would have been catastrophic for the bookies.

I suspect Curley was bothered by just falling short in that instance and he took it upon himself to rectify the matter. Such is his mentality. He possesses remarkable patience and understanding of when the moment is right to strike.

The extent of his patience is aptly depicted from his relationship with the Galway Races.

In the early '80s Curley estimates to have lost £100,000 over the course of one week. He never forgot the scars of battle Galway left on him and in 1999 he returned with revenge on his mind. He reckoned he had horses primed to recoup his losses of almost 20 years previous.

Under jockey Jamie Spencer, Mystic Ridge and Magic Combination duly delivered. Curley recouped his £100,000 and a whole lot more.

The episode is an indication of the type of character one must be to be successful as a professional punter.

In a wider context, Curley's gamble has initiated a greater debate about the integrity of the sport.

Already, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has said their integrity team have been monitoring events with a view to ensuring the betting public "has full confidence in the integrity of British racing".

Some have proposed an argument suggesting that, as the horses were on handicap marks deemed to be extremely favourable relevant to their ability, the horses had not run on their merits for some time and consequently punters that previously backed these horses had been cheated.

I wonder are these the opinions of people who missed out on being part of the gamble or bookmakers who found themselves on the wrong side of a very expensive set of results?

I certainly don't subscribe to the sentiment suggesting people have been cheated. Every trainer provides indicators as to whether they fancy the horse on any given day. Such indicators may be jockey bookings, or a particular racecourse preferred by a trainer.

When Curley held a trainer's license the indicator was the price of his horse in the betting market. Such knowledge was never state secret.

Make no mistake, Curley and his partners played within the rules.

If the gamble on Wednesday had failed miserably, would there be a chorus of people trying to blacken the actions of the successful connections? It would seem some people's morals move in the opposite direction to their cash.

On this occasion the bookmakers were outsmarted. To suggest Curley's gamble undermines the sport's integrity is disingenuous.


Horse racing is shadowed by a world of gambling akin to deep, shark-infested waters. Should one choose to enter these waters, it is very much every person for himself. In such an environment, Curley has lasted the test of time.

Many high rollers have come and gone, but few have made the game pay as he has. He never pandered to the establishment.

He never engaged in an effort to change the public perception of him. Happy to be his own man, the betting public has always known where they stand with Barney Curley-associated horses.

Whatever one's opinion of the man, his record over a considerable period indicates he is a genius with horses. Make no mistake, the odds were stacked against Curley and his men when they hatched Wednesday's plan.

To get four horses to peak condition all on the one day is a remarkable feat.

Keeping the coup under wraps while ensuring they staked sufficient money before people began to see what was going on was equally outstanding.

Throughout his career, Curley has believed 'loose lips sink ships' and the success enjoyed on Wednesday suggests the old mantra was once again to the forefront of his thinking when the time came to select foot soldiers for his latest touch.

The reality of gambling is that the bookmakers rarely lose. But this week was different. This week the underdog won.

In years to come many tales will be told by those who witnessed events unfold.

The story will live long in many memories, as will the man that orchestrated it.

Irish Independent

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