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Gambling’s greatest comeback… On his uppers and facing ruin, how Fermanagh punter Barney Curley beat the bookies

On his uppers and facing ruin, BBC doc on how Fermanagh punter Barney Curley beat the bookies

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Legendary punter Barney Curley

Legendary punter Barney Curley

Michael Furlong, Yellow Sam's jockey

Michael Furlong, Yellow Sam's jockey

BBC screengrab

Bellewstown racecourse where Barney pulled off the Yellow Sam win

Bellewstown racecourse where Barney pulled off the Yellow Sam win

Late legendary gambler Barney Curley

Late legendary gambler Barney Curley

Barney Curley, scourge of the bookies

Barney Curley, scourge of the bookies

Yellow Sam on his way to victory

Yellow Sam on his way to victory

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Legendary punter Barney Curley

The inside story of one of the greatest horse betting coups ever pulled off will be broadcast in Northern Ireland for the first time this week.

A new documentary on Barney Curley reveals how the king of the punters won £2million in today’s money on a single horse in 1975.

The Yellow Sam coup, named after the horse involved, has become one of the legends of the British and Irish turf scene.

Fermanagh-born Curley was filmed before his death in May this year, aged 88, opening up about how he devised the scheme in the joint BBC/RTE documentary which will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday.

Curley came up with the plan during a dry spell in his betting career when he owed bookmakers £12,000 and was therefore barred from attending most race meetings.

“The gambling wasn’t going very well at the time and everything I done went down the tube,” he explained.

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Late legendary gambler Barney Curley

Late legendary gambler Barney Curley

Late legendary gambler Barney Curley

To save his reputation and livelihood as a professional punter, he came up with a plan to run a horse which would win at a big price without anyone else suspecting it had a chance.

Curley owned Yellow Sam, named after his father’s nickname, and chose it on the advice of his trainer as being the most likely to fool the bookies.

“Liam Brennan had him trained to the minute, we had better horses there but none as well handicapped as Yellow Sam, his form was very poor,” said Curley.

While he could rely on his trainer — and Yellow Sam — keeping their mouths shut about the operation, he needed an equally discrete jockey to ride the horse to victory.

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Michael Furlong, Yellow Sam's jockey

Michael Furlong, Yellow Sam's jockey

BBC screengrab

Michael Furlong, Yellow Sam's jockey

“(Michael Furlong) was one of the best around at that time, he won the Champion Novices at Cheltenham...it’s very hard to get a jockey to keep their mouth closed, most of them can’t help themselves,” said Curley.

“The bookmakers are looking for one lead, just one lead, and the game is over.”

In the words of Mr Furlong (right), Yellow Sam looked as if he “couldn’t win a duck race”, but that would be the key to the success of the coup.

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Yellow Sam on his way to victory

Yellow Sam on his way to victory

Yellow Sam on his way to victory

“He needed ideal conditions, a bad race and fast ground, but he was a good jumper, so I said I’ll pick out a race and leave the rest to me,” said Curley.

Six weeks of planning saw him recruit around 300 trusted men to place bets for him all over Ireland when the day came.

“I picked out Bellewstown because I was often there and I knew the only connection was a phone outside the track,” he explained.

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Bellewstown racecourse where Barney pulled off the Yellow Sam win

Bellewstown racecourse where Barney pulled off the Yellow Sam win

Bellewstown racecourse where Barney pulled off the Yellow Sam win

If he could block the line then bookmakers at the course, who set the price for off track shops as well, would have no way of knowing the horse was being well backed at betting shops around Ireland.

Curley managed to pull together £15,000, a massive sum given the prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, was paid £20,000 a year.

If Yellow Sam didn’t win, Curley was finished, and so on Wednesday, June 25, 1975, everything was on the line in the 3 o’clock at Bellewstown.

“I’m not really a nervous creature, if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen, I gave it my best shot and that’s it,” said Curley.

One hour before the off the name of the horse and the race was revealed to Curley’s men who then swiftly started placing bets of no more than £5 at a time in every bookies they knew.

At the same time his friend made a fake call to a dying aunt in hospital from the sole telephone at the racecourse and the bookies there were oblivious that Yellow Sam was attracting big money.

As a result it started at 20/1 and won by two-and-a-half lengths with Michael Furlong on board.

Curley watched the race hiding in gorse bush in the middle of the course because if nobody saw him they would think he didn’t fancy his own horse.

“There were no celebrations, I’m not a great man to celebrate,” he said.

He added: “Yellow Sam never won a race after.”

The documentary also hears from veteran bookmakers and famous jockeys to give the most in-depth account of a day every punter since has envied and admired.

  • Barney Curley: The Man Who Beat the Bookies airs on BBC One NI on Tuesday at 10.35pm.

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