The turf and its betting rings have been an irresistible attraction to many colourful and controversial characters over the last three centuries and Barney Curley, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, deserves to be remembered as perhaps the greatest gambler of them all.
The Yellow Sam coup in 1975, when Curley arranged for an accomplice to occupy the only phone at Bellewstown racecourse to prevent off-course bookies sending money to the track to shorten Yellow Sam’s odds, secured his legendary status among punters almost half a century ago.
A decade later, his stable in Newmarket housed 30 horses – very moderate horses, for the most part – and Curley’s betting paid the bills. “I think if there’s one thing I did achieve,” he said in 2002, “I’m the only person who’s ever run a stable of horses, owned them myself, had no factories or oil wells or anything else, and made the job pay, every year, simply from betting.”
Curley knew that many senior figures in the Jockey Club, which regulated British racing at the time, were dismayed by his approach, and he made no secret of the fact that his horses were campaigned to suit his purposes. He was always ready too to work loopholes in the rules to give himself an edge. An unknown jockey might be listed to ride one of Curley’s runners in the morning papers and even on the number-board at the track, only to be replaced by a seasoned professional a few minutes before the off.
But while horses might run on unsuitable ground or over the wrong trip to line them up for a future punt, Curley always insisted that he would never “fix” a race to get better odds next time. And as the serious money in betting moved away from the racecourse and onto the internet, and the big bookmakers’ early-warning systems to identify and expunge winners grew more sophisticated, Curley changed with the times.
A four-horse coup in May 2010 netted around £4m from BetFred’s offshore operation in Gibraltar, though only after a long battle through the local courts as the firm tried to resist paying out. Only three of the horses won. Had the final leg gone in, the potential return is said to have been around £20m.
Four years later, he was at it again, and this time all four horses were winners, netting around £2m. Curley played the online system with unparalleled guile, patience and precision, setting up dozens of accounts which placed apparent “mug” bets on football over many months before the day of his gamble before catching the layers unawares as the serious money went down.
But while he will be remembered as an extraordinarily successful gambler, there was so much more to Barney Curley than that. He spent nine months in a sanitorium as a teenager receiving treatment for TB – “it was a tough time in there … but it was nothing, because a lot of people didn’t get out of there alive” – and many years later, he was a mentor to several young riders making their way in Newmarket, including Frankie Dettori, Jamie Spencer and Tom Queally.
“You had to be two different people,” Curley said in 2016. “You had to be ruthless at the races, or else they’d skin you alive. Once you got out of that car at the races, you had to say to yourself, this is a jungle. Then you’d be a different person back at home.”
Curley did not so much lead a double life as a life in two parts, with the tragic loss of his son, Charlie, in a car accident near his stable in 1995 as the bridge from one to the other. “All my brainpower, whatever you would call it, was all put into him,” he said a few years later. “People look at me and they say, well, he’s a scam merchant, but Charlie, he had a talent. I had plans to take it easy, watch how things went, get some good horses. He and I were very close. They can say that time heals, but that’s a load of cobblers.”
But the devastating grief of loss led Curley to a fresh beginning. A year later, he visited a friend from his days as a trainee priest in a Jesuit seminary, who was working with children in Zambia who had been orphaned by the unfolding catastrophe of Aids. Curley founded Direct Aid For Africa (Dafa) soon afterwards and spent the last 25 years of his life raising millions of pounds to build houses, schools and hospitals which transformed the lives of thousands of Zambians.
Curley will be remembered as one of the turf’s greatest gamblers, but he drew more satisfaction from his work in Africa than from any of his legendary betting coups. He was lionised by punters for striking fear into the hearts of bookmakers, but the man himself would have wanted the hope and opportunity he brought to one of the world’s poorest countries to be his life’s greatest legacy.