Barney Curley has been credited with many things in his time but is best known as a professional gambler. He was also a racehorse trainer, a pub owner, the manager of a pop group and an entrepreneur. He tried his luck on the other side of the fence as a bookmaker in Belfast with disastrous results. Curley even trained as a Jesuit priest for four years and raffled his house in 1984, an event which attracted the interest of the local gardai!
Curley was born in County Fermanagh in 1939. Gambling was in his blood with his father having bet and lost fortunes on his own greyhounds. One of his heavily-gambled dogs fell and broke its neck and Curley witnessed his father cradling the dead dog on the track. Whether or not that was the inspiration behind his gambling genius it is hard to say, but Curley admits to being haunted by it.
His first major gamble set the pattern for years to follow. He had a share in Little Tim and he arranged for a team of forty people to place £4,000 in bets, winning £40,000. Curley admits that he had blown the lot within six weeks, largely due to his drinking habit. He had learned a harsh lesson and soon became a teetotaller.
Curley displayed considerable skill as a trainer, not least in getting his horses to peak fitness without a recent race. One of the key elements for most punters is recent form so they tend to overlook horses that have not raced for months on end. Curley exploited this fact repeatedly, both as a trainer and a punter.
Whatever you think of his many run-ins with the authorities, Curley is clearly devoted to his charity DAFA (Direct Aid For Africa). He set up the charity for impoverished children in Zambia following the tragic death of his son in a car accident in 1995.
The Yellow Sam Betting Coup
In 1975 Curley planned and executed a masterful betting coup at Bellewstown. He exposed a lack of communications between the racecourse and the off-course bookmakers to win over IR£300,000. Curley bought Yellow Sam and put him in training with Liam Brennan, targeting a small hurdle race at Bellewstown.
The course only had two telephone lines as a means of communicating the betting moves back to the off-course bookmakers. With the main Extel line out of service, it only required Curley to ensure that the public telephone box remained occupied. This task was left to his friend, Benny O’Hanlon. A call to an imaginary dying aunt lasted over an hour, thwarting attempts to relay the betting activity.
Meanwhile, Curley’s operation went into full swing with an army of friends and acquaintances placing bets across the country. It is believed over one hundred people were involved in the coup as Curley invested £15,000 on his horse. Yellow Sam duly obliged at odds of 20-1 and the winnings enabled Curley to buy several more racehorses.
Fold-up bikes and the £4 million coup
In May 2010, Curley struck again, this time linking four horses in multiple bets. While no longer able to exploit basic links between the course and off-course bookmaker, Curley found a loophole in linking horses in multiple bets. He hired the services of technology wizard Martin Parsons who realised that bookmakers were not so vigilant when it came to multiple bets. Curley set up another military-style operation, even supplying fold-up bikes for his “putters-on” to get them around London to visit as many bookmakers as possible.
A modest race at Towcester’s evening meeting suddenly became the focus of the horse racing world. A rank outsider called Jeu de Roseau had been backed from 25-1 to 6-4 favourite, despite not having raced for two years. He was completing a treble following the success of two horses earlier in the day, bagging almost £4 million for Curley in the process.
Agapanthus won at Brighton followed by the victory of Savaronola at Wolverhampton. The plan had almost unravelled when Savaronola went lame just two days before the race. Curley rated Sommersturm the biggest certainty of the four but he was beaten. Had all four horses won, the winnings would have exceeded £15million.
Curley returns to haunt bookmakers
Although he retired from training in 2013, Curley returned to torment the bookmakers again the following year. He staged a repeat four-horse coup in January 2014, this time with complete success. Eye of the Tiger, formerly with Curley but then trained by Des Donovan, got the gamble under way by winning easily at Lingfield Park. Sophie Leach trained the second winner in Seven Summits, another former Curley-trained horse. He won comfortably in a handicap hurdle at Catterick.
It was back to Donovan for the third leg, this time Indus Valley winning at Kempton Park. The success of the gamble hinged on Low Key in the final leg at the same course, trained by Curley’s former assistant John Butler. The stewards interviewed all three trainers about the improved form of their horses which were routine tested but found no evidence of a breach of the rules. The gamble was reported to have cost the bookmakers an estimated £2million.
As disappointing as it may seem, there are no hidden methods behind Curley’s success. Perhaps surprisingly, he is famously quoted as saying that he has no regard for money. It is the challenge that he enjoys. He puts his success down to hard work and an ability to adapt. Wherever punters find a loophole, the bookmakers will move quickly to close it. These days they have computerised tracking systems and their own expert analysts.
Barney’s philosophy is simple and that is that he retains total confidence in his ability to win. He still believes that going to the racecourse itself is essential for the serious horse racing gambler. You must shop around for the better prices and never chase your losses. Perhaps the hardest piece of advice for others to follow is to control your emotions. Curley has done so successfully throughout his life, both in victory and defeat.