Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Ulster trainer at centre of another betting coup

A sweltering lunchtime outside Gibraltar's Supreme Court and Ray Pilley, a long-time resident and lawyer on The Rock, jocularly grumbles about the theft of just-ripened tomatoes from his garden.

There is unlikely to be an arrest. Barbary Apes have snuck in and swiped them. Crime only rarely gets too much more serious on the self-governing British territory where, even on a short stroll, you'll almost invariably pass a constable — part of the British police force — on the beat. Theresa May, take note.

Yet, there is no shortage of employment for the 200 lawyers within a town whose income is derived predominantly from its magnet as an offshore base for financial interests and, particularly of late, internet gaming operators.

It is that which has brought former RAF pilot Pilley and his in-house QC Freddie Vasquez at Triay & Triay Lawyers to the courtroom, in pursuit of justice for their clients, the “Gibraltar Five”.

What makes an increasingly acrimonious affair a cause celebre is not merely that the central adversaries in the proceedings are the Newmarket-based Irish trainer and gambler Barney Curley, a bane of the bookmaking industry for four decades, and Phill Brear, a former top police officer in the UK — but that the case goes to the heart of offshore gaming and, what many claim, is the potential lack of protection for UK punters.

The quintet of punters, who do not include Curley — though four of them are related to him — are owed £823,272 by the offshore-based arm of Betfred, the UK betting operator which earlier this year bought the Tote.

Those winnings form part of a multi-million pound coup organised by Curley on May 10 last year when his associates placed hundreds of accumulator bets, mostly Yankees, in betting shops on four horses running in four separate modest races. Further wagers were placed online.

Three of the runners, Agapanthus, Savaranola and Sommersturm were trained by Curley. The fourth, Jeu De Roseau, formerly in training with him, was based with Chris Grant in Co Durham.

Agapanthus and Savaranola won at Brighton and Wolverhampton respectively. Though Sommersturm —ironically the most fancied of the trio — was beaten at Wolverhampton, Jeu De Roseau followed up with victory at Towcester. But three winners were enough, with odds of 11-2, 4-1 and 25-1 having been obtained on those horses, to ensure total winnings, on paper, of £3.9m. If Sommersturm had gone in, too, the tally would have increased to an estimated £20m.

All betting shops here eventually paid out, including Betfred — but not Betfred's online operation which, on the advice of Gibraltar Gambling Commissioner Brear, withheld winnings due to the five punters pending an investigation.

The suggestion was that Curley was betting “by proxy” through his accomplices, “a clear deception”, according to Brear (54), an ex-deputy chief constable of the West Yorkshire police.

However, his handling of the dispute has led to legal representatives for the five punters seeking a judicial review of Brear's decision.

The legal process will be followed closely by the no fewer than 22 concerns, including bookmakers, online casinos, and the betting exchange, Betfair, that now operate from Gibraltar.

It is easy to see why they flocked to The Rock. The benefits include just 1% gaming tax on turnover, capped at £425,000, compared with 15% on profits in the UK. Offshore companies also do not have to pay UK levels of VAT on costs like advertising and are not paying corporation tax to the UK government. Most crucially, offshore operations do not have to pay the 10.75% betting levy on profits — although some do so voluntarily. This is income which is vital to the health of British racing.

John Penrose, the heritage minister, who is responsible for gambling, subsequently announced proposals that gambling should be taxed where it is consumed, not from where it was supplied. However, that will not necessarily dispel immediate concerns over protection for punters in dispute with offshore-based operators.

Here, the BHA (British Horseracing Authority) investigated and apparently found nothing untoward about the Curley coup. In addition, IBAS (the Independent Betting Arbitration Service) directed operators in the UK and in another offshore location, Alderney, to pay out winnings.

Brear, however, maintained in a fax to the Racing Post that his was the only agency to conduct “a meaningful and proportionate investigation”.

Though he has subsequently agreed that winnings could be released by Betfred — the company have not taken up that option — Brear added in his fax that the coup “was a fraudulent enterprise based on deceptions and the systematic misuse of inside informationto the substantial detriment of numerous online and 'bricks and mortar' bookmakers, at least one betting exchange and most of the customers who bet on these races.”

Events have since taken an even more combative turn, with lawyers for the “Five” employing a firm of private investigators to “observe” Brear over five days in July.

Most pertinently, the investigators' report detailed the Gambling Commissioner's meetings at Betfred's lawyers, Hassans, which, according to the punters representatives, supports their claim that confidentiality may have been breached, that Brear was seeking to support the gaming operators in resisting making out payments and that, in his role as a government official, he is not impartial.

Though a controversial figure, Curley's gambling exploits are generally accepted as being a colourful thread in the tapestry of British and Irish horseracing. A spectacular coup he masterminded at the Irish racecourse of Bellewstown in 1975 won him £300,000 — the equivalent of around £2million today.

Curiously, for a man who was the UK Gambling Commission director of operations for two years and, in Gibraltar, oversees the activities of an online gaming industry, with a turnover of billions a year, Brear insisted: “Until this incident, I'd never heard of him.”

Yet, presumably he recognised that major gambles have always been a feature of racing? “Absolutely,” Brear retorted. “But let's remind ourselves that horseracing and dog racing are the only sports where participants can bet on themselves,” he said.

“Because of that, there are specific rules to make sure it's done fairly and transparently.

“There's a fantastic public interest story in all this. If you want to run it as 'poor old Barney', that's up to you.

“But as the evidence will eventually show, he's no Robin Hood.”

Which will, no doubt, prompt some in the UK to question why Commissioner Brear appears to be adopting the guise of a Sheriff of Nottingham.

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