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Noel Furlong: 'I had £300,000 on Destriero and I had a lot on the double'

Noel Furlong: carpet king, poker ace and fearless punter who gave the bookies a hiding
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Steve Dennis recalls an audacious upfront gamble that netted £1.5 million in 1991. This article was first published on October 9, 2012

Noel Furlong, Cheltenham coup mastermind and poker ace, dies at 83

The tales of great gambles won or lost are prone to the Liberty Valance effect: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Details tend to be amplified or diminished according to taste during the telling and the retelling, and we all know the old saw about a lie being halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on.

The internet has aided such proliferation, a vast arena of Chinese whispers that plays tricks with the truth. Where is the legend, and where is the fact?

The legend sits in his armchair, runs a hand through his unruly thatch of grey hair, establishes the fact. "I won a million and a half when Destriero won the Supreme Novices' at Cheltenham," says Noel Furlong, and that fact speaks for itself.

Like the poker ace he is, Furlong, 74, is reluctant to show his hand without good reason. A preliminary phone call begins with the foreboding words "how did you get this number", accessibility of course being the bugbear of any true man of mystery.

An accord established, the trail of discovery leads eventually to a big house tucked away in the lanes behind the Curragh, a house Furlong declares is built with bookmakers' money; they'd be very pleased with the end result.

Very few gambles have captured the public imagination as thoroughly as the Destriero coup of 1991. That may be because of the sums involved, or because of the transparency of the situation – this was no handicap 'plot' mired in misdirection but a novice contest at the biggest meeting of the year – or because of the aura of the man behind it.

Furlong, the carpet king whose business is the biggest in Ireland and second-biggest in Britain, had relieved Ladbrokes of a cool million when his former crock The Illiad (backed from 33-1 to 7-1) ran away with the valuable Ladbroke Hurdle at Leopardstown in January 1991.

That in itself would be worthy of illumination were it not outshone by the Destriero coup.

"It was Ladbrokes' race, the idea was to take their money on both fronts," says Furlong in his slow Dublin brogue, his words delivered with the deliberation of a bookmaker reluctantly counting out tenners.

How the plan unfolded

The Illiad is central to the story – not only because the Ladbroke punt equipped Furlong to pay £500,000 to get the VAT man off his back and thus enable him to attend Cheltenham – but perhaps we should start with Destriero.

Now and again Furlong, known as Noel for his Yuletide birthday but christened John James, asks that the tape recorder be turned off as he slips briefly into off-the-record territory before returning to a more open narrative.

There may be 21 years between the past and the present but certain matters are evidently not ready for public consumption.

Furlong acquired Destriero from Mick O'Toole, who had trained the gelding to win a bumper at Leopardstown in January 1990.

The plan was for Furlong's wife Elizabeth to train their string of horses, but she was refused a licence and so the Furlongs employed Andy Geraghty as a trainer.

There is a degree of haziness about the account at this point. Furlong insists his wife Betty did (unofficially) all the training, while Geraghty is understandably disinclined to downplay his role to mere cipher, although the fact Geraghty walked away from Furlong's employ after just six months probably sheds sufficient light on the situation and the frustrations involved.

Now a successful bloodstock agent, Geraghty remembers Destriero as an easy horse to train, no problem, ideal for the purposes of landing a gamble.

"He was a bit of a worrier, a bit of a weaver, but he was no trouble to train," he says. "He used to work with The Illiad all the time, it was pretty straightforward.


Horse Destriero

Race 1991 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Cheltenham

Coup architect Noel Furlong

Background Following The Illiad's lucrative win in the Ladbroke Hurdle, Furlong aimed at a hugely ambitious Cheltenham Festival double – Destriero in the Supreme and The Illiad in the Champion Hurdle. Each horse was backed in singles and a substantial amount was placed on the double

Cash won £1,500,000

Next The Illiad was soundly beaten, losing the money on the double. Neither horse did anything of consequence subsequently, winning a single race apiece (The Illiad in a point-to-point)

"Destriero was better fresh, so it was for the best that he didn't run between Christmas and Cheltenham."

Whatever Betty Furlong's role in the training of the pair, it's undeniable that she had a sharp eye for a horse. Few would have looked twice at the nine-year-old The Illiad, but Betty looked once and saw his future.

"Betty was brilliant with horses," says Furlong of his late wife. "The Illiad hadn't won a race for more than two years when we paid Homer Scott £2,500 for him, but Betty looked at him and said 'we'll improve him two stone' and I told her if that was the case we'd win the Ladbroke."

The Ladbroke was to come, but the seeds of the Cheltenham gamble were sown three months before at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, when Destriero hacked up in a maiden hurdle and The Illiad regained the winning thread in handicap grade.

"I had a good few quid on Destriero at Leopardstown and the same went for The Illiad," says Furlong. "After that, I started working out the Cheltenham punt."

It was a hugely ambitious punt. It is one thing to bring one horse to perfection's peak for the purpose of landing a gamble, but quite something else to do it with two horses on the same afternoon.

Furlong plunged on Destriero for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and backed The Illiad to win the Champion Hurdle, and for good measure had plenty on the double.

"I had £300,000 on Destriero," he says. "I had a lot on the double and had a good few quid on The Illiad.

"The money went on ante-post. I knew the bookmakers wouldn't panic until after Destriero had won the first leg.

"I backed Destriero with Ladbrokes over the phone, and also had a fair amount with a few of the independent bookmakers in Ireland, not mentioning any names. The worst price I got about Destriero was 6-1, and the worst about The Illiad was about 12-1, 14-1.

"I knew that Destriero had turned into a very good horse and I didn't want to expose him, because the price would have gone. And The Illiad had improved an awful lot from his Ladbroke win . . ."

Noel Furlong, owner of Destriero, had £300,000 on his horse in the 1991 Supreme Novices'

So was he confident? An old-fashioned look crosses Furlong's face and his voice takes on a sardonic edge. "Hadn't I paid half a million to the VAT man just to go to Cheltenham? I thought Destriero was a certainty."

It was some race for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle that year. The 2-1 favourite in a field of 21 was the Martin Pipe-trained Granville Again, who would win the Champion Hurdle two years later. Ireland was well represented – Jim Bolger saddled Irish Champion Hurdle winner Nordic Surprise, while Dermot Weld sent the strongly fancied General Idea.

And then there was 6-1 shot Destriero, one run over hurdles under his belt, the relatively inexperienced Pat McWilliams on his back and £300,000 on his nose.

"Pat didn't know the money was down," says Furlong, who watched the race from JP McManus's box. "I worked on a need-to-know basis and Pat didn't need to know. But he followed my instructions to the letter."

McWilliams rode a confident race, darted Destriero through horses to lead at the second-last and, although he got too close to the last and clouted it hard, his nearest pursuers Granville Again and Gran Alba could make no inroads on the flat.

Four lengths was the margin and Furlong had one and a half million pounds heading his way, with The Illiad and the second leg of the double an hour away.

But Furlong knew the double was doomed. Earlier that morning, Betty had taken him aside and told him that The Illiad was dehydrated and was unlikely to run to form.

The situation must have elicited divided emotions in Furlong – one hand holding a million and a half, the other hand letting slip another five million.

"The atmosphere was electric for a lot of people, but not so much for me because I knew The Illiad was dehydrated and the double probably wasn't going to come off," he says.

"I was still hoping, though. Who wouldn't hope? It would have been the best part of five million more if The Illiad had won. It would have been the gamble of all time. What might have been, eh?"

The bookmakers, knowing nothing of The Illiad's problem, were busy minimising their plight by busting the ten-year-old down from 12-1 to 11-2 for the Champion Hurdle.

Their throats must have been as dry as the horse's, but in the race there was no real cause for concern, The Illiad making little show before trailing in last of the 21 finishers behind Morley Street.

Cheltenham Festival: the packed betting ring during jump racing's most important week

The 'what might have been' shouldn't be allowed to detract from the purity of the punt on Destriero, though. There was no protecting of a handicap mark, no chicanery on previous outings – Destriero was aimed fair and square at the race and Furlong backed his judgement to the hilt.

"We got very drunk afterwards," he says. "I can't remember where we were staying, some hotel near Cheltenham. We drank champagne into the small hours of the morning."

It's a fitting image, the shrewd gambler's due reward of a bagful of readies and convivial company. Furlong's gambling days weren't done, of course. He reminisces happily about a colossal punt on 1999 Grand Annual Chase winner Space Trucker, and later that year he made global headlines when winning the World Poker Championships in Las Vegas and banking $1 million.

"I had two fives in the hole, and the flop came queen, five, queen," he says of the final head-to-head hand.

"I played it slow . . . he had a pair of sixes hidden but I had it won anyway, I had most of the chips by then.

"I don't play poker at all now, and I never played seriously after that. It's not a game you can just turn up and play; you have to play regularly to maintain any standard."

'I haven't had a bet this year'

He's finished with looking back now and wants to look forward. His carpet empire continues to thrive and he is reigniting his racing interests after a few years in the doldrums, a recent back operation having renewed his vigour.

Behind the big house there is a big yard with around 20 brand-new boxes, and in them the next generation of horses to carry Furlong's striking black silks.

He parades a Galileo colt and a son of Dansili, both big, eyecatching three-year-olds who are likely to end up just down the road at Dermot Weld's place. Betty isn't around any more, of course, but he remembers what he can of what she taught him and is enjoying himself in the process.

The obvious question runs along the lines of the next big gamble, and whether these two horses are the heirs to The Illiad and Destriero. Furlong waves his hand dismissively.

"I haven't had a bet this year," he says. "Look, my business is doing well, I'm set up with the house and all, I don't need the money."

But surely the Destriero coup wasn't a case of needing the money? Surely there was more to it than that?

He slaps the Galileo colt on the neck and smiles: "I'd love to bring those days back, to enjoy the thrill of taking a few quid off the bookies," he says.

There you are then; print the legend or print the fact, but make sure you leave room for another chapter.

More great gambles:

Yellow Sam: a perfectly executed gamble that netted Barney Curley a fortune

Albert Davison: a master plotter who ensured Irish betting shops took a bashing

Great racing coups: the fascinating tale behind the infamous Gay Future gamble

'This is the biggest certainty that will ever walk out on to this racecourse'

Harry Findlay: it was, and always will be, the easiest £33,000 I've ever won

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The money went on ante-post. I knew the bookmakers wouldn't panic until after Destriero had won the first leg
E.W. Terms