The extraordinary story of Barney Curley, the fearless punter who DID beat the bookmakers

When Barney Curley, the legendary Irish racehorse trainer and professional gambler, landed a spectacular gamble with a horse he owned called Yellow Sam at the Bellewstown race course in Ireland in 1975, it was through a coup that was relatively easy to pull off.

He spread an outlay of slightly more than £15,000 across 300 betting shops using a team of trusted associates, and ensured that even if any of the high street bookmakers taking bets on the horse did become suspicious, their attempts to alert their colleagues at the track would be foiled because the solitary phone line to the Bellewstown circuit was being hogged by another of his team, pretending he was speaking to a dying relative.

Yellow Sam won Curley more than £300,000, which was then the equivalent of £2.5 million at today's values.

Modern technology means there is no way such a coup could be successful today.  Betting patterns can be evaluated in seconds and every on-course bookmaker has his own mobile phone.  The odds are weighted even more heavily than before in favour of the bookmaker and that rankled with Curley.

"People were telling me that our day had gone," Curley said. "You know, punters I knew over the years. It's finished, they said, over. I never thought like that. Because bookmakers are always trying something new, to rob punters, to get them to bite. That's what beats them. The greed."

Curley determined that he would do it again.  And 35 years later, by which time he had his own stable of horses, he did.  Not by putting his money on one horse, but on four.

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It was an extraordinary plot.  Gambling on the outcome of one race is risky enough, even if you know a horse is fit and capable of beating the opposition.  A sure thing rarely ever is. So the idea that you could prepare four horses, at peak fitness and in the right races, to win on the same day is so unlikely as to be almost unthinkable.

It is why bookmakers love multiple bets -- doubles, trebles, Yankees -- because they hardly ever win.  Yet it was in multiple bets that Curley and his associate, a statistical whizzkid called Martin Parsons, saw a weakness in the bookmakers' defences.  Multiple bets win so infrequently that patterns for bets on more than one horse simply were not monitored.

Therefore, he could employ a team of putters-on to place as many small multiple bets as he liked with hundreds of bookmakers, and so long as those putters-on behaved in an entirely normal way, doing nothing to identify themselves as anything other than mug punters with fanciful dreams, then no one would suspect anything. The scheme they concocted, the elaborate lengths to which they went to ensure it was watertight, would be worthy of a movie to rival The Sting, although there was nothing illegal - and certainly no con - in what they were doing. All Curley had to do was find four sure things...

The story of how he did it, and took the bookies for almost £4 million, is the subject of Nick Townsend's book, The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History .

Curley never liked journalists, whom he would describe as "arseholes" even in polite company.  Yet he took Townsend into his confidence, the two having met first in the late 1980s when the Daily Mail asked Townsend to interview him, and for the first time has explained the elaborate plot in all its detail. Delving into Curley's extraordinary life story, one in which at different times he trained to be a Jesuit priest and managed a rock band and devotes himself now to helping the poor and hungry in Zambia, Townsend describes not only how he pulled it off but why.

The detail is fascinating and Townsend, who stayed in touch even after his career took him away from horse racing and into football and now knows him better than any other journalist, tells the story superbly.

The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History (Century) is available from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith as well as other outlets.  Click on any of the links to buy.



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