Yellow Sam: a perfectly executed gamble that netted Barney Curley a fortune
Published in the Racing Post on October 10, 2012
On a sun-griddled afternoon at Bellewstown in the summer of 1975 Barney Curley was crouched among the bushes adjacent to the third-last, watching the hindquarters of a field of undistinguished hurdlers disappear towards the finishing post.
Curley was accompanied by Ann Brogan, whose father Jimmy had trained Gold Legend to win the 1958 Irish Grand National. She was sister of Barry, the jump jockey. She, too, had ridden winners as an amateur under rules.
On this day it wasn't her racing expertise that Curley sought, but her wheels. Curley had "a big, flashy car" at the time, which would have attracted unwanted interest. So surreptitious had he been that few would be aware until the following day, other than those managing the betting shops of Ireland on both sides of the border, of what would culminate in the biggest betting coup in racing history.
Even some of those involved had no notion of the true significance of the enterprise.
The son of County Fermanagh, then 37, was in the infancy of his gambling career, having been a relatively late starter. He had set out fully intending to become a Jesuit priest. At Mungret College he would get to know, among other lay pupils, Barry Brogan.
After contracting TB, from which he took a year to recover, Curley felt unable to continue training for the priesthood and developed diverse business interests, from managing an Irish showband to farming pigs and cattle to running betting shops. And gambling.
THE CURLEY COUP
Horse's name Yellow Sam
Race Mount Hanover Amateur Riders' Handicap Hurdle (2m5f), 3.30 Bellewstown, June 25, 1975
Coup architect Barney Curley
The strategy On form Yellow Sam appeared to have little chance and started at 20-1. Curley's men backed the horse in 300 betting shops across Ireland at SP just before the start. Bookmakers were unable to force the price down because they could not get through to the course. The one public telephone was occupied leading up to the race by an associate of Curley making inquiries about the health of a fictional relative
Money won £306,000 (worth more than £2 million today)
What happened next Bookmakers paid out, albeit some reluctantly. Curley remains one of the best-known gamblers on either side of the Irish Sea, but his focus is on the charity he founded, Dafa, which directly assists people in Africa, mostly Zambia
Curley's fortunes fluctuated in the early years. Lester Piggott and Roberto had notably rescued him in the 1972 Derby when he owed a considerable sum to various bookmakers. However, when in the early summer of 1975 Curley struck the rocks and required a financial lifeboat after a particularly bad sequence of losing bets, there would be no such obliging saviours.
Curley told the Curragh-based Liam Brennan, with whom he had horses in training, that he badly needed to pull off a touch and asked him to identify a suitable candidate.
"Liam was an excellent judge and always made maximum use of the horses he had," Curley recalls. "He was a very good teacher. I learned a lot from him."
The choice was, however, limited. There was only one horse suited by the prevailing fast ground. Curley says: "After a couple of days Liam came back to me and said, 'You know, Barney, this horse Yellow Sam, I think he's improved a bit'."
Yellow Sam, a son of Wrekin Rambler, had exhibited only a semblance of ability in nine runs over two seasons, although some of his races had been at major tracks, including Fairyhouse and Punchestown, and on unsuitably soft ground. His best placing was eighth.
He was lined up for an amateur riders' hurdle race at Bellewstown in three weeks' time. Situated high upon the Hill of Crockafotha, with the mountains of Mourne in the distance, it is a sharp, left-handed, nine-furlong track. Back then it staged only a three-day summer meeting.
But what was important to Curley was that the quality of racing was modest. The Mount Hanover Amateur Riders' Handicap Hurdle, over two miles and five furlongs, was as undistinguished as any.
Brennan booked a jockey well in advance. Barry Brogan, who had been riding Yellow Sam in his work, and said later that "he had been moving exceptionally well", would have made the obvious race partner for the horse. But despite his regard for Brogan as a horseman, Curley saw him as a liability. By the jockey's own later admission he was a heavy gambler and an alcoholic. Instead, one of the best amateur jockeys, Michael Furlong, was booked.
Furlong recalls how, several days before the race, Brennan requested him not to take another ride. When the declarations subsequently appeared, with Yellow Sam allotted a weight of 10st 6lb in the field of nine runners, the jockey was somewhat bemused.
"I used to get a few spares from Liam and I rode in a few points for him as well," he says. "Ted Walsh and I were neck and neck in the amateur championship and most times you'd be grateful to get any ride. But I thought why the hell does he want me riding this thing? His form was terrible."
Poor enough, as it transpired, to ensure a starting price of 20-1. Bellewstown also offered one other significant advantage, possibly unique for a racecourse. It had just one public telephone, the only means on-course bookmakers had of receiving intelligence of market moves from the betting shops around the country and thus influencing the SP.
Those shops were Curley's target. "I intended to have my men put the money down in offices in every large town in Ireland," he explains. "I aimed to cover about 300 shops in total, with the bets going on just before the race and all in such small quantities that nobody would pick up on what was going on."
For weeks he sat in his office at the Boswell Stud in County Wicklow and prepared everything down to the last detail, as he put it, "like a general massing his troops before going into battle – only the enemy, on this occasion, were the bookmakers".
He adds: "I never told anyone directly of my plans, not [his wife] Maureen, not my parents. Even Liam didn't know precisely what I was going to do. Everything was kept as low key as possible."
One bookmaker, Sean Graham, who had been owed around £30,000 by Curley at the time, was aware of what the gambler had planned.
Curley says: "I said to Sean about a week before, 'I've hit a brick wall Sean. I could do this without you, but I'd rather I had your help'. He agreed – with the proviso I didn't go anywhere near his betting shops. The knowledge that my horse was fancied and would be a long price was very useful to him."
Normally, it should have required only a phone call from the off-course bookmakers to bring the SP down. But Curley was determined the calls would never get through – until it was too late.
It made his most vital associate the character who would block the one racecourse telephone. He was named Benny O'Hanlon and had worked for Curley in his betting shops.
"Benny was a balding, heavily built kind of fellow, a tough sort who you wouldn't want to get into an argument with. But he had great integrity," Curley says.
On the morning of the race, Curley set out to drive the 50-mile journey from Wicklow and called in at the Brogan household. He asked Ann to drive him to the course, insisting they mustn't be observed.
"We had a lot in common, sharing a religious faith and a love of horses," he says. "She knew I was a punter but had no idea of the scale of this.
"As we waited, out of sight, I was ice cold. I had faith in my horse's jumping ability and the expertise of his partner."
Meanwhile all over Ireland, Curley's troops had moved into action. "I had five or six men, whom I would have trusted with my life, to ring all the others. Each man put on anything from £50 to £300, depending on the size of the shop, in all totalling £15,300. All my men eventually got paid around £200 each, but a lot of them just got involved for the sheer thrill of it.
"The offices were happy to accept the bets 15 minutes before the race, thinking they would have no trouble in laying it off. All they would have to do was to pick up the phone and have it back on the track."
That was where O'Hanlon came in. "Benny was told to go into that phone box 25 minutes before the race start with strict orders. I'd told him, 'No matter who comes to the phone do not leave it under any circumstances until the commentator announces they're off'.
"So Benny got talking to some non-existent hospital in nearby Drogheda, where he had an aunt who was dying. Every few minutes Benny would announce his relative's state of health, 'Oh, all right then, that's not so bad . . . oh dear, she's taken a turn for the worse again'. It was all total nonsense but he carried it off brilliantly."
Furlong had been oblivious of what was afoot. "When I went into the ring Liam said, 'This fella will win'. I thought,' He can't. 'It may have been a bad race but he was about the worst horse in it – on paper. But Liam was right. I took it up around half a mile out and he won easily enough."
The jockey adds: "We pulled up to unsaddle and angry looking bookies were coming into the parade ring and they were beginning to scream a bit. Liam said, 'You'd better weigh in and go. Don't hang around getting dressed'."
Furlong discovered the magnitude of Curley's plan only the following day when he read about it in The Sporting Life, but he says: "It made me feel proud, partly because they'd picked me as the jockey to do the job."
Ann Brogan drove Curley back to her home for a cup of tea. He still remembers having to borrow £5 from Ann's mother Betty to buy some petrol to drive home.
Curley still had no real idea of how much he'd won. "We never brought the money to the house," he says. "It would have been too dangerous. We rented a room at a hotel in Wicklow, saying it was for a game of poker. The boys brought the money there in big bags. Some bookmakers paid out in big green single pound notes."
The payout was enormous for the time, £306,000 – equivalent to more than £2 million today – but no individual shop had to pay out more than £6,000. It was regarded as a record payout until Curley trumped it himself on May 10, 2010.
"Afterwards they [the bookmakers] changed the rules to make sure they didn't get caught out by Barney Curley's horses again," he says with a wry smile. "But Yellow Sam was never just about repaying debts.
"You always like to do things that nobody else can do. It was a massive touch at the time. I went on to buy Middleton House [a stately home] in Mullingar. Very few people would have had more than a quarter of a million in cash in 1975."
He adds: "It was quite simply one man's brains against the bookmakers. I'd outwitted the system and taken advantage of unique circumstances. If they'd been able to, the bookies would have driven the price of that horse into the ground."
So what of the other participants in the story? Curley recalls: "Ann died a few years later, but I'm sure she found peace. She was always too good for this world. Benny O'Hanlon, who used to bring my mother her newspapers every morning, sat down next to her and died in her arms."
Liam Brennan is retired. His son Niall runs a thriving training centre in Florida. Michael Furlong partnered the Padge Berry-trained favourite Bannow Rambler in the 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup but was brought down by the fatal fall of Lanzarote. He is now an exercise rider for Aidan O'Brien. "Last year I went to the Breeders' Cup with the filly who went on to win the 1,000 Guineas, Homecoming Queen," he says.
And as for the horse who will always be associated with the classic sting? The unfortunate Yellow Sam never won again. He was sold to go chasing and was killed in a fall.
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