Interviewed in December, 2016, Bernard Joseph Curley, popularly known as 'Barney', famously said, 'I couldn't tell you when was the last time I had a bet and I don't think I'll ever have another.' Nevertheless, from the mid-Seventies onwards, Curley garnered legendary status in horse racing circles, largely as the result of executing several well-orchestrated betting coups, often months in the making, down the years.
Born in Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland in 1939, to a devoutly Catholic family, Curley spent four years as a Jesuit seminarian and briefly stood as a bookmaker at Celtic Park, Belfast before becoming 'poacher turned gamekeeper' in his late twenties. Recalling the 1971 Cheltenham Festival, where he turned £700 into £50,000, or more, he said, 'I was so red hot I was in danger of spontaneous combustion'.
However, it was just over four years later, on June 25, 1975, that Curley first gained notoriety, as the result of an elaborate scheme involving his own horse, Yellow Sam, in the Mount Hanover Amateur Riders' Handicap Hurdle at Bellewstown. Bellewstown is a small, provincial track in Co. Meath and, at the time, staged one, three-day meeting each summer. More importantly, Bellewstown had just one public telephone, which was the only means by which racecourse bookmakers could contact the outside world. Yellow Sam boasted, at best, modest form – so modest, in fact, that even in the hands of leading amateur rider Michael Furlong he was sent off at 20/1 – but had been identified as an improving type by trainer Liam Brennan.
With a game plan worthy of, in his own words, 'a bank robbery', Curley employed associates to back Yellow Sam, at starting price (SP) just before the 'off', at hundreds of betting shops across Ireland. Meanwhile, another associate occupied the public telephone to prevent news of the coup from reaching the course and affecting the odds on offer. Curley won £306,000, or £2.58 million by modern standards.
Fast forward three-and-a-half decades, to May 10, 2010, and Curley tried again, this time with four of his own horses at three different meetings, which he combined in trebles and accumulators. All four horses were heavily supported and the first three – Agapanthus (2/1 from 25/1), Savaronola (11/10 from 8/1) and Jeu De Roseau (6/4 from 7/2) – all won.
Sadly, the supposed "coup de grace", Sommersturn, who was sent off at prohibitive odds of 1/3 for an amateur riders' handicap at Wolverhampton, having opened 4/6 course, ran well below expectations and could finish only fifth, beaten 3¾ lengths. Although denied a 'jackpot' payout of approximately £15 million, Curley still reputedly profited to the tune of £4 million. He later said, 'We're very satisfied with the amount we won.'
Lo and behold, on January 22 2014, a date upon which Curley had decided 'probably at least six months before', four modest horses to which he was connected in some way won, again after being heavily supported, and landed an estimated £2 million in winning bets. The horses involved, Eye Of The Tiger, Seven Summits, Indus Valley and Low Key were either formerly trained by Curley, who did not renew his licence in 2013, or trained by his former employees Des Donovan and John Butler.