Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

The Punter: Betting legend Curley hangs his up fedora

No more will there be a sharp intake of breath when the famous fedora hat enters the betting ring. No more will we marvel at wonderous exploits of the greatest gambler of all time who over three decades, plunged his punting dagger into the financial heart of the bookmakers.

No more will there be a sharp intake of breath when the famous fedora hat enters the betting ring. No more will we marvel at wonderous exploits of the greatest gambler of all time who over three decades, plunged his punting dagger into the financial heart of the bookmakers.

The hat was the trademark of Fermanagh-born Barney Curley, ironically a failed bookmaker but punter extraordinaire, successful trainer and mentor to top jockeys such as Frankie Dettori and Tom Quealey. He has decided to call it a day in his battles with the ‘old enemy’ and won't be renewing his his trainer's licence, preferring instead to devote all his energies towards his African charity for which he has worked tirelessly for over the years.

Not a man to be trifled with, the 72-year-old had no rivals when it came to landing betting coups and fleecing the bookies of more than a few pounds. Why was he so successful? Simple. He was a master of patience, training skill and handicap form, always ready to exploit a weakness or loophole in the bookmakers' armoury — now more and more difficult in the technological age.

“The buzz has gone out of the game,” he says, having saddled his final winner Me Fein in a Fakenham seller back in November. “Ma Fein was my last winner and last runner as he was also second at Uttoxeter at the end of that month. I haven't had a bet since my last coup in 2010 as I would have to put in as much effort to make only half of 1% of the money we made at that time.”

That particular bit of business earned him £4m and the final part, more than £800,000, was paid out only last February after two firms — Betfred and 888sport — did all in their power to hide behind Gibraltar's Regulation Authority in an effort to deny settlement.

It all began for Barney back in 1971 when winning £50,000 for an outlay of £700 at Cheltenham followed four years later, with the famous (infamous if you were a bookmaker) Yellow Sam plot which netted him £306,000 — equivalent to £2m today — and earned him legendary status.

It was a military-style operation planned for six months, involving an injury-prone horse with ability but dropped into a seller, the lowest grade in racing. And so the plan was laid for Bellewstown with all bets laid off-course in shops from Coleraine to Cork along with a bold move that ensured the only telephone into the track was occupied for half an hour by a friend who pretended to be ringing a hospital inquiring about a sick relative.

By the time the off-course bookies realised what was going on, they didn't have enough time to influence the price at the course and Curley watched under a hedge as the horse trotted up at 33/1.

One can't help thinking that we haven't heard the last of Barney in his desire to ‘beat the bookies’. If another opportunity presents itself, and occasionally it does, he'll be in there, making life hell for them. The very mention of his name sends shivers down their spines. Barney knows that and he'll find it hard to stay in ‘retirement’ which is where the bookmaking industry hopes he remains.

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