Curley’s coup is evergreen up in the Yellow Sam bar
Everyone loves a good old-fashioned coup, and fresh relevance has been given to the one that put Barney Curley on the map. Racing has taken place on the Hill of Crockafotha at Bellewstown in County Meath since 1726, but I dare say it has not seen many days like June 26, 1975, when Curley, the owner, trainer, philanthropist and former trainee Jesuit priest, orchestrated the coup which would set him up for life.
Curley, the king of coup who also made an estimated £2 million in accumulator bets when four horses won for him on Jan 22, 2014, had bought a gelding called Yellow Sam and had him trained by Liam
Brennan with specific instructions to win an amateur riders’ hurdle at Bellewstown.
To ensure he was well handicapped, Yellow Sam was run in several races over unsuitable distances before being prepared for the amateur race, and while Brennan did his bit, Curley put people in place across Ireland but, to maintain secrecy, without telling them the name of the horse.
On the day, Yellow Sam opened at 20-1. Obviously, if the bookies had got wind of large bets being placed, he would have gone off much shorter, and the reason Curley had chosen Bellewstown was because it had only two telephone lines; a public phone box and one owned by Extel, which supplied data to betting shops.
The Extel line had met with an unfortunate accident so was not working, which left just the phone box. Meanwhile, Curley’s friends and accomplices were waiting for the nod in betting shops across the land, with sealed instructions not to be opened until they received a call.
Ten minutes before the race, Curley called 10 of his friends with instructions to each ring 10 more, who had between £50 and £300 to place on Yellow Sam. In all, £15,000, Curley’s life savings, were invested.
The final piece of the jigsaw was to make sure the Bellewstown phone box was engaged, and to this end Curley’s burly friend, Benny
O’Hanlon, went in 25 minutes before the race, pretending to be on a call to a dying aunt in a non-existent hospital. The monologue to his tragic aunt lasted half an hour.
All the while, bookmakers across Ireland, unable to contact their on-course counterparts, tried in vain to lay off their liabilities. Apparently unbacked, Yellow Sam went off at 20-1. Determined not to arouse suspicion by being seen on course, Curley hid in an infield gorse bush to watch Michael Furlong bring home Yellow Sam by 2½ lengths. Since nothing was illegal about the coup, bookmakers were forced to pay out 300,000 punts (£1.5million in today’s money). In something of a two-fingered gesture to Curley, the bookies begrudgingly paid the winnings but in single notes, which filled 108 bags.
Time is a great healer, and in 2014 a refurbished Bellewstown named a bar in honour of the celebrated Yellow Sam, with Furlong, who had only learned about the coup in the following day’s papers, in attendance. Coronavirus has turned the world on its head in many ways; one irony is that during the current restrictions, the stewards’ room at Bellewstown is too small and now they operate out of the Yellow Sam bar.
The journey home from York to Lambourn for Pyledriver, favourite for Saturday’s Pertemps St Leger after winning the Great Voltigeur last month, was not entirely straightforward.
William Muir, his trainer who was also driving the horsebox, noticed a red light on the dashboard as he set off. He called his breakdown cover, to be told that it would be with him “within 3½ hours”. Three hours and 25 minutes later, it arrived.
“Where did you have to come from?” asked Muir, assuming it was somewhere the other side of Manchester. “Ten doors down the road,” the mechanic replied.
Having looked in the engine, he said he could not fix the problem and that, though it was not serious, neither was he allowed to tell Muir it was safe to drive home, in case the trainer sued his organisation. “I’m not that sort of person,” Muir said. “Just tell me it won’t catch fire.”
“Nil chance of that,” said the mechanic, Muir nursed the lorry home and the unfazed Pyledriver finally made it to bed at 1.30am.
Stamina should not be a problem on Saturday.
Big win: Barney Curley got the better of the bookies in 1975