RACING AHEAD: Barney’s big betting coup

Racing Ahead
Racing Ahead

On June 26, 1975, professional gambler Barney Curley pulled off one of the most famous betting coups in all of sports. With careful planning and skilful execution, Curley and his compatriots won just over £300,000 (or about £1.4 million today) on the “slow but steady” mostly unknown horse named Yellow Sam.

Curley’s father, Charlie, had been a grocer before sinking deeply into debt via gambling on dog racing.

While he was well known at this point among bookies for a small string of relatively large victories, it was nothing compared to what he had in store for them in 1975. Curley, who owned the horse in question, had him specially trained to run in an obscure National Hunt race at Bellewstown, Ireland, where the jockeys were primarily amateurs.

Bellewstown had been chosen specifically because at this time it had only two telephone lines running to the track – one public and one private, for bookies. This is significant since at this time those telephones were the only contemporaneous communication between off-course bookies, and the course bookies who determined the ‘starting price’.

In order to make the odds more favourable for Curley’s bet and lessen Yellow Sam’s handicap at the same time, allowing him to run lighter in the race, Curly ran him in several previous races in very poor conditions, where Sam never finished above eighth place. The plan worked, and Yellow Sam’s starting price was put at 20-1. Of course, the 20-1 figure can change, depending on the betting, and if the course bookies were aware that large amounts were being bet on Yellow Sam, the odds would have changed dramatically. Unfortunately for the bookmakers, on the day of the race, there was a serious communication breakdown.

Completely orchestrated by Curley, somehow the private line was disabled. The only communication between the betting houses and the course bookies was the single public telephone.

About a half-an-hour before the race began, Curley’s friend, Benny O’Hanlon, took over the phone booth, pretending to have a telephone conversation with a dying aunt. Apparently a good actor, or perhaps everyone present was just too intimidated to try to force him off the phone, they all waited sympathetically while he carried on his conversation. He continued until the race started.

Concurrently, off the course, Curley had friends, colleagues and mere acquaintances all stationed to place bets of between £50 and £300 at betting parlours across the country. Altogether, Curley had them bet just over £15,000 on Yellow Sam to win.

After making his call, he quickly headed over to Bellewstown, arriving just in time to watch the race. Yellow Sam won by two-and-a-half lengths.

The bookies had to pay-up. But to show their irritation, many paid him in single notes, resulting in 108 bags containing a total of just over IR£300,000.