Love him or hate him, Barney Curley is box office.
No one can get the betting world talking as he can and that has been the case for many decades. Whilst the focus of much of the media was initially on Frankie Dettori’s return at Lingfield on Wednesday, that soon changed as speculation reached fever pitch that the seemingly retired Barney could well be instigating one of his infamous coups.
Four horses racing at three meetings in Britain, all of which had some connection to Curley, were heavily backed on Wednesday morning and reportedly linked together in combination bets.
Eye Of The Tiger, trained by Curley when last seen on the track 481 days ago and now trained by Des Donovan - Curley’s former assistant trainer and resident in Curley’s old yard - was backed from 10/1 to even money. The former Group 2 winner bolted up under Shane Kelly in a weak Lingfield heat at 1.30pm.
Just 10 minutes later, Seven Summits, trained by Curley prior to joining trainer Sophie Leech last year and returning from 225 days off the track, was backed from 7/1 to 9/4 to win a modest handicap hurdle at Catterick. Paul Moloney’s mount travelled well throughout the race and was always holding his nearest rival.
Meanwhile, Des Donovan and Shane Kelly were heading from Lingfield to Kempton where he would saddle Indus Valley in a six-furlong handicap at 4.25pm. The seven-year-old was making his return from 700 days off the track, but was backed from 20/1 to 4/5. He scrapped home after looking an unlikely winner for much of the race. Shane Kelly and Paul Moloney were often utilised by Curley when he held a licence.
The final leg of the gamble was Low Key, formerly owned by Baron Georg Von Ullman, whose cast-offs have often been secured by Curley in the past. Low Key is now trained by John Butler, a former assistant trainer to and tenant of Curley’s, and was backed from 7/1 to 4/7 on his return from 350 days off the track. Despite having the eyes of the racing world on his shoulders, Liam Keniry kept his cool and delivered the seven-year-old to complete the scarcely believable four-timer with a degree of authority.
First and foremost and all betting coups aside, one must acknowledge just how incredible a feat of training and planning this was. Any one of those winners would have been described as an excellent training performance when evaluated individually given that they have all presumably had physical problems and had to defy long absences, but to get all four to peak on the same day and be placed in races that they could be confidently backed to win is a truly remarkable performance from all involved.
At the time of writing, it is pure speculation that Curley was involved at all, but not only do all four horses have links to Curley, the style of the gamble was very much that of the man in the trilby with the Fermanagh accent.
Curley came to international prominence for organising the infamous Yellow Sam coup at Bellewstown in 1975 which reportedly yielded €1.7 million in today’s money. While that coup is sure to live on the longest due to the ingenuity and quality of the story attached to it, Curley reportedly won more than double that amount in a more recent coup on May 10th, 2010 which bore striking similarities to Wednesday’s coup.
The 2010 plot involved three horses trained by Curley, who had just 12 horses in his care at the time, and an ex-inmate of his who had been moved to trainer Chris Grant. The four horses were linked together in multiple bets and three of them won, reportedly netting Curley in the region of £4 million, a large proportion of which was only paid out after a high-profile and prolonged dispute with Betfred. Had the fourth horse won that day, approximately £20 million would have been paid out.
When one steps back and examines Wednesday’s coup, one wonders did Frankie Dettori even play a minor role in the incredible day. It is well known that Curley took Dettori under his wing as a young apprentice and the two remain very close. With Frankie’s long-awaited return from injury being sure to be the focus of media and public alike, was it a coincidence that Frankie choose to return on a quiet Wednesday that also saw his great friend attempt the biggest betting coup in years? Only the men involved will know for sure.
The handicapper’s role must also be discussed, as three of the four were dropped eye-catchingly large amounts in the official ratings in a short space of time. Eye Of The Tiger was dropped a remarkable 56lb after just six runs for Curley, Indus Valley had been dropped 16lb in four runs since joining Des Donovan and Low Key had been dropped 28lb in just four runs since joining John Butler. Seven Summits had been treated similarly on the flat, being dropped 42lb in six runs in Britain, but he landed his leg of the four timer over hurdles following four outings over obstacles. One can only imagine how long it would have taken for a horse to be dropped by the same amounts by our more cautious handicappers!
GOOD FOR RACING?
The obvious question is this, are such coups good for racing, or do they make a mockery of the formbook and integrity of the sport?
My view is that, save for a couple of quibbles, Barney Curley exploits the handicapping system as it stands and does it more ruthlessly than anyone else is willing or able to. In terms of the coverage it generates being perceived by some as negative, I would suggest that anything that gets people buzzing about Mickey Mouse races on a Wednesday afternoon is great for racing. It is the characters and drama of racing that draw many people in and instances such as Wednesday’s drama will do more good than harm.
One suspects that almost every trainer, owner and punter, secretly or otherwise, would love to pull a stroke with just one horse in one race, but the reality is that the vast majority do not have the ability and/or patience to get a horse to the track to win when duly expected, never mind having the logistical skills and ability to keep the most precious of secrets under wraps to get adequate sums of money on without alarming the bookmakers. If it was that easy, it would be happening every day and that would be a serious problem.
However, there are very few people in British and Irish racing capable of pulling off such a coup such as Wednesday’s and thus they are a rarity. Curley aside, perhaps only Michael and Barney O’Hare and Patrick Veitch can claim to have successfully pulled off similar coups in recent years.
For all the rejoicing of seeing the bookmakers take a hiding from a brilliantly-executed coup, this case did highlight how our game is changing. A few months after his audacious coup in 2010, Curley told the Independent that: “Nobody will win as much on horse racing this century.” If the speculation connecting Curley with Wednesday’s coup is correct, that view didn’t stop Curley, who handed in his training licence and declared himself retired just over a year ago, making a bold attempt to better it, but his words could well prove prophetic.
Unfortunately for Curley and those that like to see the bookmakers take an old-fashioned caning, his 2010 coup served notice to the bookmakers of the danger, albeit an unlikely one, of multiple horses being linked together by one puppet master. In these days of bean-counter bookmaking, every measure is taken to ensure that bookmakers are not exposed to excessive liabilities and one-off gambles such as this week’s one.
The systems put in place after his 2010 coup coupled with the increase in popularity of overnight betting markets and the ease with which punters can communicate with one another via Twitter meant that many people cottoned on to the gamble at an early stage.
As a result, early reports from bookmakers suggest that those connected with the coup did not win as much as the £4 million won by Curley in the 2010 gamble, but any coup that results in a seven-figure pay-out in this day and age has to be considered a spectacular success.
The bookmakers will undoubtedly be relieved that the efficiency of their bean-counting systems coupled with their cautious approach to laying saved them from a proper caning by an ingenious coup, but as Curley put it himself in the aforementioned Independent article in 2010: “"It's not for the money, it's for the buzz. Beat the system, you know, beat those bookmakers, those smart-arses. You go into a betting shop and see them robbing these poor fellows, with these gaming machines. They're as addictive as crack cocaine. You see them coming back to the counter with their credit cards, for another tenner. Of course the great thing about those machines is that number nine won't go to even money and win five lengths."
Barney Curley may be 74 years of age, but whether you love him or hate him, he is still the master the hitting the bookies where it hurts the most. Such is the changing nature of the sport and bookmakers, there is unlikely to be another Barney Curley.
In an era where genuinely interesting characters are in very short supply, I will be very sad the day that the final shot is fired between Barney and the bookmakers. However, one suspects that it will be Barney rather than the bookmakers that chooses that day and there may well be another bullet left in the Curley gun yet.