The fascinating tale behind the infamous Gay Future coup
First published on Sunday, August 24, 2014
He stood in the witness box at his own trial and waited. Counsel was ready with the question. "Do you regard yourself as taking part in a stroke of genius or in something criminal?" Tony Murphy was ready with the answer. "A stroke of genius, sir."
A few days later the jury would express their disagreement with this notion, but the story of Gay Future was no black-and-white open and shut case, for there were many in racing who considered the conspirators badly done by and very many more who held them in admiration for their sleight of hand in putting one over on the bookmakers. Forty years on from the coup, the Gay Future case still provokes the eternal fascination of getting away with it.
Murphy was right. There was genius in the plan's genesis, but a genius that was compromised by a flaw in the procedure that would usher in the scheme's ultimate downfall. It was a plot, sure, but with nothing sinister about it, no doped horses or paid-off jockeys, just a beautifully conceived and remarkably straightforward trick to beat the bookmakers. Gay Future was heavily backed to win a race, and he won that race. But to understand the end we must go back to the beginning, back to 1974, back to a different world.
'Operation Crock of Gold' was Murphy's idea. Murphy was a millionaire, a construction magnate from County Cork who drove around in a gold Rolls-Royce, a big punter, a sharp-minded man whose band of associates – including a Garda superintendent – would be dubbed by the newspapers of the day as the Cork Mafia and he came up with an almost watertight plan to win a lot of money from the bookmakers.
Murphy's plan involved two horses, one capable, the other pretty useless. The plan involved two trainers, one established name to bring the capable horse to fitness and form, the other an obscure individual to serve as that horse's presumed trainer. It involved a minor race at a backwater racecourse on the busiest day of the racing year, somewhere far below the bookmakers' radar. It involved two jockeys, one unknown, the other well known in Ireland but not – in those less well-informed days – in Britain. And it involved a lot of money. Slowly, Murphy moved his pieces into place.
On Easter Monday 1974, the Cork Mafia conducted a trial run. Two horses at out-of-the-way meetings were coupled in singles and doubles – Golden Lancer was intended to be a non-runner, meaning that all the bets were rolled over on to Hindsight, who ran at Towcester. However, Hindsight was beaten, and several thousand pounds stayed with the bookmakers, but the premise of the plan was fundamentally sound and Murphy was confident of one day retrieving his losses and winning much more besides.
Gay Future, a four-year-old chestnut gelding with winning form on the Flat in Ireland, was initially owned by Johnny Harrington before becoming the central character in Murphy's plan. Gay Future had ability and would be more than capable of winning the lowly contest Murphy had in mind for him. The other horse – also a four-year-old chestnut gelding – was no more than a decoy. It was unnamed, unraced, unknown. It would serve Murphy very well nevertheless.
Gay Future was placed in the Tipperary yard of Edward O'Grady, who had saddled his first Cheltenham Festival winner a few months earlier. O'Grady got on with the business of preparing him for a race. At the end of July, the unnamed horse was sent across the Irish Sea to the tiny yard of Troon permit-holder and stockbroker Tony Collins, for Jockey Club regulations stipulated that any horse must be in a trainer's care for 28 days before it could race for him. The fake horse travelled as Gay Future, his documents indicated him to be Gay Future, to the outside world he was Gay Future. Collins entered him for a novice hurdle on August 26, Bank Holiday Monday.
Cartmel is still one of the more minor of Britain's racecourses, but in 1974 the little Lake District track was a distinctly remote outpost. Its Bank Holiday card would attract moderate horses and little attention on a day cluttered with a dozen meetings. Crucially, for the purposes of Murphy's scheme, it was not connected to the bookmakers' Exchange Telegraph 'Blower' system, by which they could communicate with the racecourse. The only means of contact with Cartmel was through a single red public telephone box.
In the morning papers, Gay Future was down to be ridden by 7lb claimer Jimmy McNeill. In the hours before the race he would be replaced by top Irish amateur Tim Jones, whose name would mean very little to most of those in attendance at Cartmel.
Gay Future was shipped to Britain two days before his engagement in the Ulverston Novices' Hurdle. His horsebox was driven to a quiet Cumbrian country lane, where he was transferred to Collins' horsebox and transported the remaining distance to Cartmel, where he spent the night before the race.
With Gay Future in place, the other pieces of the puzzle began to fall into position. Collins had been told to enter two horses of little account to run elsewhere on the Bank Holiday. Ankerwyke was declared for Southwell and Opera Cloak given an engagement at faraway Plumpton. Neither horse was an intended runner, their presence on the racecards necessary only to camouflage the bets on Gay Future. Indeed, neither horse ever left Collins' yard - a critical error overlooked by the conspirators.
On the morning of the race, members of the Cork Mafia flew to London and began touring betting shops, placing single bets on Gay Future and combining him in £10 and £15 doubles and trebles with Ankerwyke and Opera Cloak. When those two horses were eventually declared non-runners, all the bets would become singles on Gay Future. By the time a sharp-eyed operative at William Hill realised something was going on and sent out a message to stop taking bets, Murphy's team had put on more than £5,000.
The bookmakers panicked. They sent men to Southwell and Plumpton to back Ankerwyke and Opera Cloak, but as both horses were happily eating grass in their home paddock it was all in vain. Ladbrokes dispatched a motorbike rider from Manchester to Cartmel with cash to shorten the price of Gay Future, but given the course's remoteness and the extra holiday traffic on the roads he didn't arrive until after the race had been run.
Following months of painstaking preparations, this turned out to be the easy bit. In a bid to put punters off the scent, Collins' right-hand man Ian McAllan rubbed soapflakes into Gay Future's coat to make it seem as though the horse was sweating profusely. "He got a bit carried away and the horse came into the paddock looking like Father Christmas," says Collins.
Collins' wife – Collins had made the trek south to Plumpton (without Opera Cloak), his absence from Cartmel intended to imply lack of confidence in the horse – went around the betting ring with a handful of £20 notes backing the stable's other runner Racionzer, thus shoring up the price of Gay Future, shown in the racecard as being owned and trained by Collins and carrying his green and white colours. Gay Future was 10-1 at the off and cantered to victory by 15 lengths under a gleeful Jones.
Murphy's stroke of genius had succeeded. Or had it? What happened next The bookmakers, considering themselves victims of a scam, refused to pay out, although some - including Heathorns - did subsequently release the winnings. On the evening of the race, a curious Sporting Life reporter telephoned Collins' yard and asked about Ankerwyke and Opera Cloak, only to be told by a stable worker that she could see both horses out of the kitchen window and that they hadn't moved all day.
That small, explosive piece of information would be enough to blow Murphy's plan to smithereens.
"It was such a simple thing," says Collins, 78, regret still lacing his voice even at 40 years' remove. "But that's where we f***** up – if only they'd told me the full story!
"No-one had mentioned that the vital ingredient of the bets were the doubles and trebles and the non-runners. Otherwise I'd have sent the other two horses to the races and simply said they hadn't eaten up and no-one would have batted an eyelid when they were withdrawn.
"All my bets – I had about £400 on [although previous accounts mention £3,000] – were in singles. If I'd been told why the other horses were so important, I'd have had doubles and trebles like everyone else.
"I went to Plumpton, to keep out of the way, and after Gay Future's race was over I was standing in the stationmaster's office on Plumpton station ringing the number of that red telephone box at Cartmel. After a long time someone answered and I asked them who'd won the last race.
"He answered 'I've got no idea, I'm a policeman and I'm trying to get a thousand cars out of this car park'. I asked him whether he could find out for me, I waited on the line, and after a few minutes he came back and said 'a horse called Gay Future'. I asked him the starting price and he said 'I knew you'd ask that – it was 10-1'. I couldn't believe it was such a big price."
When it became clear that Ankerwyke and Opera Cloak had never been intended runners, the authorities were swift to act. The story reached its conclusion in Preston Crown Court in February 1976 and then in the chambers of the Jockey Club, the conspirators were found by majority jury verdict (10-2) to be guilty of defrauding bookmakers. O'Grady and other members of the Cork Mafia were cleared of all charges before the trial commenced.
The long arm of the law closed only around Murphy and Collins, who were fined a relatively insignificant sum and ordered to pay costs, although by the time of the trial McAllan had moved to Ireland to work for trainer Bunny Cox and was reluctant to return to Britain to stand as a witness.
After the conclusion of the trial McAllan surfaced and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment.
"I was very surprised we were found guilty. Indeed the judge Sir Bernard Caulfield summed up for an acquittal," says Collins. Caulfield was a racing man – his son Michael is a former secretary of the Jockeys' Association – and evidently had doubts as to whether there was actually a case to answer, but the jury had no racing knowledge and chose to ignore his summing-up, being possibly influenced by anti-Irish sentiment prevalent at a time of IRA bombings in Britain.
"Tony Murphy stood by me in court as strongly as he could," adds Collins. "He took the rap to protect his friends and did his best to distance me from the plot." Yet if the verdict of the court was bearable, the punishment subsequently meted out by the Jockey Club was not. Murphy and Collins were both warned off for ten years.
"It wasn't as grim as you would think," says the affable Collins, who adheres firmly to the doctrine 'engage brain before opening mouth'. "It hurt for the first year and after that one got used to it, and the ten years passed. That pales into insignificance, mind you, compared to the attitude of the local golf club. I resigned from the club at the time, thought I'd spend a year lying low and then rejoin, but sadly they have never invited me back.
"That's my biggest regret about the whole affair. I play there as a guest, but it's been made pretty clear that if someone proposes my membership I'll be blackballed. Can you credit that? It beggars belief. What happened happened. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube and I don't regret anything about my involvement in the Gay Future case – except the golf club."
Some have long memories, and even after 40 years it's clear the story of Gay Future provokes a reaction. Some will believe the conspirators received their just deserts, others will nod and privately wish that Murphy and his men had got away with their stroke of genius. Gay Future's name will endure as long as men and women try to think of ways to outwit the bookmakers; 'Operation Crock of Gold' will always be an inspiration for those chasing rainbows.
THE KEY PLAYERS
Responsible for producing Gay Future at concert pitch on the big day, O’Grady went on to become one of Ireland’s leading jumps trainers, winning 18 races at the Cheltenham Festival. His stable stars have included Drumlargan, Time For A Run, Back In Front, Ned Kelly and Sound Man, but his best horse was certainly the brilliant but ill-fated hurdler Golden Cygnet, wide-margin winner of the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle who died from the effects of a final-flight fall at Ayr two runs later. At the time of the fall he was running out a clear winner from the great Champion Hurdle-winning pair Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse.
The urbane and witty Collins (“Careless talk costs lives and alimony”) served his ten-year sentence of absence and nominated his first day back at Ayr as the best of his racing life – “My great friend Robert Sangster flew up an escort party that included Charles Benson and Barry Hills”. His friendship with Sangster, fostered from their National Service days, resulted in them owning more than 100 horses together, Collins as very much the junior partner but clearly visible in the names of the best of them: Colonel Collins (third in the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby), Commander Collins and Captain Collins. “It was our joke – neither one of us came out of the army with a commission!” He is still in the stockbroker business in Scotland, with a few store horses in the field awaiting a more conventional career than the one pursued by Gay Future.
After Cartmel, the four-year-old ran for Collins at Hexham where – in the absence of Tim Jones – he was ridden by 7lb claimer and future champion jockey Jonjo O’Neill. “I asked my friend Gordon Richards if he knew of a good kid who could keep his mouth shut,” says Collins. “Yes, he said, I know one who’ll be leading a horse up in the second race. That was Jonjo, only 18 at the time. I put him on a winner.” Following that Hexham success, the horse was purchased by flamboyant rails bookmaker John Banks, but later that season Gay Future was killed in a fall at Wetherby. Collins has no recollection of what happened to the ‘fake Gay Future’.
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